I recently had someone tell me, “Clicker training works for your dogs, but my dog is too stupid to learn. She can’t even figure out how to walk down the stairs; there’s no way she could learn to do tricks. She’s just dumb.”
Think your dog isn’t bright enough to train? Keep reading.
Anyone who has met my younger dog Spica will tell you what a sweet girl she is. She likes other dogs and loves people, and would be the perfect pet dog for the average family. Spica was a rescue that I took on as a foster dog. She was adopted twice, but due to poor timing in both cases, both families ended up being unable to keep her and returned her after a few weeks. Deciding it was too hard on the dog to constantly change homes, and having just lost one of my own dogs, I kept her.
As I’ve said, Spica is a very sweet dog… And that’s usually all I can say about her. She’s technically a Doberman, but her body is built more like a Greyhound’s. She’s tall and lanky, with narrow shoulders and a protruding spine. One ear flops to the side, and a bristly mohawk runs down her nose, giving her a comical look.
She’s not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, either. As a trainer and hobby competitor, I usually gravitate toward clever, quick-thinking dogs that challenge me with their creativity (one of several reasons I have Dobermans). Spica, while not the slowest learner I’ve ever worked with, certainly never broke any records for her problem-solving speed. Learning to lick the peanut butter out of a Kong toy was a challenge for her — yes, really — and there are quite a few puzzle toys in the dogs’ toy box that she has never been able to figure out. If you give her a toy stuffed with food that doesn’t fall out easily, she will poke at it tentatively for a few minutes and then look up with sorrowful eyes, as if you’ve played a cruel joke on her.
The result of this is that, beyond basic house manners and handling behaviors, I’ve never bothered to do much creative training work with Spica. Valenzia is my working and competition dog; Spica is more of a housepet, like my cats (who also get less training time than they deserve).
Every year, I attend ClickerExpo (an intense three-day lineup of seminars and workshops with the world’s leading behavior experts) to continue my education and improve my training skills. The event is presented and partially taught by Karen Pryor, a well-known figure and pioneer in the field of behavior modification, and author of a number of seminal training books (the most recent of which is Reaching The Animal Mind). Each time I attend this convention of trainers and behavior analysts, I return home recharged and ready to experiment with my dogs — though so much learning in such a short period of time can be fatiguing, and I always come back from the convention feeling like I need a week’s sleep to recover.
This year follows suit. I arrive home late Sunday night after driving back from Lexington, where the convention was held this year. My dogs greet me exuberantly and look up at me with shining brown eyes that say, “Mommy, we’ve been bored for four days, and we want to play!” In the interest of getting at least some sleep, I decide to do some freeshaping with them. Mental exercise is a great way to wear out an energetic dog.
Valenzia is a fairly experienced shaper, and I have no trouble engaging her in training; she spends ten or fifteen minutes learning to back up and plant her hind feet on top of a cardboard box. By the end of the session, she’s ready for a break.
I give Valenzia a chew treat in the next room and look at Spica, who blinks hopefully from me to the treat jar. I haven’t done much shaping with Spica, because advanced training seems to tax her brain and frustrate her, just like the puzzle toys she hasn’t mastered. However, I recall an anecdote from Karen Pryor’s Reaching The Animal Mind, in which the author recounts how she trained her children’s pet hermit crab to ring a bell. Surely, if an invertebrate can be shaped to perform behavior, my funny-looking imitation Doberman can do as much.
Spica lights up when she sees the clicker and scrabbles over to sit in front of me. I present a hand target — the first and simplest foundation skill I teach, but one that took Spica longer to master than most of my clients’ dogs — and am pleasantly surprised when she pegs it immediately with her nose, as her targeting is usually slow and tentative. I target again, and she happily pokes my hand. I swing my target behind her, and she spins in a tight circle to touch it.
Obviously she’s ready to move on to something more challenging. I put a folded blanket on the floor, and Spica trots over to investigate it. I haven’t done much matwork with Spica, so I decide I’ll shape her toward a relaxed body posture on the blanket. I click her for a sit and down on the mat. Once she’s in a down, I click when she shifts her hips. When she’s wiggling from side to side, I click for tipping her hips over on one side, and then for extending her legs. Soon Spica is looking at me and deliberately, as if asking a question, stretching her legs out for the click. Then I begin clicking as she shifts her head and shoulders, and she starts pressing her shoulder down toward the floor for the click.
Within one session — just a few minutes of shaping — she is lying down, rolling on to her side with her cheek to the floor, stretching her hind legs out behind her, and glancing up at me hopefully. (See the video below for a recap.)
Now, this is not a particularly impressive behavior; in a typical puppy class, we might shape this kind of settle-on-mat in five minutes, or ten if the puppies are particularly squirmy and distracted. But then again, a typical puppy picks up hand targeting in less than a minute, and when I started training with Spica, it took her three sessions to figure out that touching the hand would produce food. For Spica, completing a behavior in one session is probably a new record.
One conclusion can easily be drawn from this experiment: I’ve proved that Spica is at least as smart as a hermit crab.
No, of course it’s not really that simple. The beauty of the method we call “clicker training” is that it’s rooted deep in the science of operant conditioning, and utilizes a different part of the brain than traditional verbal or physical teaching techniques. The organism being trained doesn’t have to be smart; it doesn’t even have to have a spinal column. Any creature can be clicker trained, whether it’s a fish, a snail, a giraffe or a human.
And especially, I’m reminded after one training session, a really sweet dog who’s not too bright.
This video was taken the evening after the shaping session described above. This was the first time Spica had seen the blanket since the initial session, so you are seeing exactly what she remembered from the previous day. Each click identifies one of my criteria from the previous training session.