Try this at home?
Karen Pryor Academy's (KPA) Dog Trainer Program combines online education, at-home training exercises, and a series of workshops with a KPA faculty member. One of the first exercises in the online web lessons is to teach your dog to lick its lips, on purpose, for a click and a treat at home.
Our sixteen faculty members around the country report that at the first workshop some students arrive with dogs that can happily give a huge lick when asked. Other students found the exercise difficult or impossible. They question the point, anyway, of teaching a dog to lick. Couldn't we skip this chore?
Seeing the movement
People who have never done real shaping are SO accustomed to asking for, causing, or initiating the dog's movements that they sometimes find it very difficult to SEE movements, large or small, that the animal is making on its own.
At one of the early ClickerExpos, I was teaching a session on shaping. I offered to show people how to shape the behavior of backing up. To make it as easy as possible for people to see, I brought a Great Dane on stage. I put the owner at the front end of the dog, giving the treats. I stood across the stage behind the dog, clicking for hind leg movements. In short order, the Dane was stepping backwards, and then moving backwards a few steps, and then backing up continuously until clicked.
Later that day, a woman stopped me in the hall, introduced herself as a veterinarian, and confessed that the demonstration was very difficult for her to understand.
"I was unable to see the movements," she said.
"You think it's hard to see a Great Dane step backwards? Try it on a Pomeranian," I thought, but I sympathized. Her eyes could see; her brain just couldn't figure out what to focus on.
So, in the KPA course, "lick it" is an exercise in observation, as well as in shaping. The people who find the exercise difficult are often the very people who need it the most; the more traditional training experience they have had, the more of a mental shift they need to make.
Why the lick?
KPA Program Director Tia Guest, faculty member Helix Fairweather, and I chose the lick because it's something all dogs do; in fact, it's something all dogs do often, especially at meal time or in the hopes of food. Yet you can't MAKE the dog do it with a leash, nor do dogs tend to do it when you actually lure with food. (Then a dog is going for the food, so it's sniffing, not licking.) Other reasons for choosing "lick it" were:
It's harmless, so if it escalates, so what?
My dog never licks
Oh, yes it does. People who are unfamiliar with shaping may feel that they can't click until they see a great big smooch; they don't realize that any glimpse of pink tongue counts. However, if you're having trouble seeing random licks, there is a fast way to get started: butter the dog's nose! Once you've captured a few of the licks the butter elicits, licking should increase enough for you to get the dog licking for a click.
Licking as a stress signal
Some people have doubts about reinforcing licking because it can be a stress signal. However, as long as you are not forcing the action by manipulation or luring (in which case the animal is simply learning to wait for the shove or the lure), the initial cause of an action is not really important.
If the muscles are doing the movement, the click will reinforce the movement. As soon as the behavior becomes operant—hopefully within three or four clicks—any previous "reasons" for doing it are no longer valid. Now the dog's not just licking because it's nervous, or to get the grease off its nose; it's licking to make you click. The behavior itself does not generate an emotion. It's just one more way to earn reinforcement.
We often train a behavior in animals that was initially a symptom of emotion. A horse may rear spontaneously because it is frightened, or in an aggressive display. But you can shape rearing, put it on cue, and the horse does it willingly and calmly as a trick or a learned behavior, with no agitation resulting at all. Dolphins and whales use a loud slap of the tail in fear and as a warning signal, but I've trained tons of dolphins to tail-slap on cue with not a vestige of emotion attached any longer.
I think the likelihood of increasing anxiety by clicking licking is far outweighed by the likelihood of making licking just one more cheery behavior that the dog loves to do on cue.