Recently our author Morgan Spector was the guest on the Clicker Solutions Dog Book Review list, discussing his book Clicker Training for Obedience. Toward the end of a month of answering questions, he responded to a post from a newcomer with such thoughtful and useful encouragement that we would like to share it with all of you. Here it is, with permission:
Amanda writes: First of all, thanks for taking the time to be here. I have greatly enjoyed reading your posts.
Morgan: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
I am fairly new to dog training and BRAND new to clicker training, though I have some experience with positive training of the lure and treat variety.
It's a step in the right direction.
I am using your book to train my 3 year old mix, Gryffin, who is recently adopted. He lived in a shelter for 3 years, so had very little prior training.
Three years? Wow.
He's some sort of lab mix—basically looks like a small, brindle lab. Anyway, I'd love to do some novice obedience training with him (UKC, of course, since he's a mix) and maybe eventually some agility.
IMHO, if AKC really wanted to promote responsible dog ownership generally, it would open a mixed-breed registry. Down with pure-bred snobbery!
Also, I have another question. I have trained Gryffin in most of the basic behaviors using the lure/treat method I mentioned above. I am treating him as a "crossover" dog, though, because I really want to be able to *shape* all his basic behaviors (your "fluencies") without so much food luring. My question is: If I work on more than one behavior at a time, and I am not to the point of adding a cue to any of the behaviors, am I going to confuse my dog? So I would be capturing/shaping multiple behaviors at once, without any cues. Is this too confusing for him? For example, do I have to wait until I have "sit" on cue before I could start working on "down" or "stand"?
A good question. First, congratulations on taking on free shaping. It's a challenge but it is also a lot of fun, and I am adamant that even the most dedicated "directed operant" trainer must know how to free-shape. I would recommend starting with tricks or "nonsense" behaviors, because you can mess up and do no harm. Look at "Take a Bow Wow" (1 and 2) or any of Karen Pryor's videos to get an idea of some tricks you can do. 86 Things To Do With A Box is fun.
I guess my answer on cueing is, you need not necessarily be afraid to put a behavior on cue early. You can add the cue once the behavior looks more or less the way you want the finished behavior to look, and if you use lures you can get that "look" pretty quickly. Let me give an example on "sit." If the dog sits with a "puppy sit," use the bait to straighten him up and click when he straightens. IOW, only click the straight-up sits. Once he assumes that position 80% of the time, you can add the "sit" cue.
The more proficient you become at this training, the faster you will find yourself putting behaviors on cue, simply because you get better at shaping the behavior the way you want it right from the start.
But the same general point I made to others applies to you as well: don't be afraid of the technology. With "traditional" and "motivational" training alike there is the danger of "correcting" improperly, which can do a lot of damage. With clicker training you really can do no real harm because you can always clean mistakes up without any collateral fallout.
Your first dog is the dog you experiment and learn with. You'll be able to put titles on Gryffin, and you may even win your class here and there, but think of it overall as a learning experience from which both you and Gryffin will benefit regardless of the outcomes in competition.
In fact, clicker training is a constant learning experience because every dog you work with will have something new to teach you. The best single piece of advice I can offer to anyone getting started is that you open yourself up to the process and enjoy the journey. Getting there is more than half the fun.