I experienced a little reminder today of why we try to practice “clean” training – clicking without extraneous movements, words or signals that distract the dog or telegraph that a treat is coming. It’s important that the clicker be the most salient signal that reinforcement is on its way; otherwise, our training becomes less precise as the dog begins listening for the rustle of the treat bag or watching for our hands to move instead of paying attention to when we click. A clicker-savvy dog can also become very frustrated or confused if they aren’t getting the feedback they need.
A training article I wrote is scheduled for publication next month, and the editor asked if I could provide a photo of a behavior described in the article. The behavior is a fairly simple one – bowing with paws and nose braced on an overturned bowl – that I once shaped during a live demonstration. Even though Valenzia hadn’t done it in a year or so, I figured it wouldn’t be difficult to reshape the behavior and snap a photo.
The only tricky spot is that Valenzia has always been terrified of cameras. The sound of a focus beep, any kind of flash, or even me picking up my DSLR will send her diving under the bed to hide. I tend to use my less-scary smartphone to take training photos and video, but the fact that the camera is only operable via a touchscreen makes it difficult to “sneak” photos like I could do with my remote-controlled DSLR.
I was able to reshape the behavior fairly quickly – I’d never put it on cue, but it had only taken me about ten minutes to shape it the first time – but since it was still fairly new, I hadn’t built duration into my criteria. Unless I wanted to spend several more sessions building up the length of time the dog would hold the bow, I would just have to grab a quick photo while we were working. It’s a bit of a shortcut, but that shouldn’t be a problem, right? Surely my dog and I are both experienced enough to cheat a little bit, right? (Famous last words.)
Since it was difficult to wrangle phone, clicker and treats, I ended up sitting near the target and bracing the phone with my knees. When Valenzia got in position I would snap a photo by tapping the screen with the back of a knuckle, then click, then toss a treat. Of course, this delayed the click (instead of getting the click for performing the behavior correctly, she was now being clicked for holding it while I tapped the screen and the phone focused and took a photo — about an extra two seconds, plus the distracting hand movement). This left a bit of wiggle room in the criteria for the behavior, since I wasn’t clicking the exact same thing every time, and led her to start experimenting with different nose and paw positions, trying to get me to speed up my click by finding the “right” position. It also made it really obvious to the dog when I was about to click (about two seconds after I’d tapped the phone).
After a few repetitions of this, Valenzia started to get really annoyed with my sloppy clicking and inconsistent feedback. This was expressed in frustration barking, as well as exaggerated performances of the behavior, such as spiking the target or kicking it across the floor instead of stepping up on it gently.
After becoming increasingly agitated by my fiddling with the camera instead of clicking promptly, she finally walked over the the target, slapped one paw on it, hard – BAM! – and stared straight at the phone with a look that can only be described as a glare. Take the stupid photo already. I want my click.
I laughed — because it’s bad when your own dog starts calling you out on poor training mechanics – but didn’t click, since she wasn’t in position and I didn’t want to reinforce the violent paw-slap. Valenzia sighed, put her other paw on the target, and obligingly bowed. The next repetition, she just flopped down on the floor with her foot over the target and looked at me as if to say, “If you can be sloppy, so can I.”
And she was absolutely right. It wasn’t her fault for giving up; my imprecise feedback was occluding this behavior, which wasn’t practiced enough for the dog to be sure what I wanted. I was reminded of something Ken Ramirez (executive vice-president of animal care and animal training at Shedd Aquarium, and one of the world’s foremost consulting zoo trainers) said during a presentation on training techniques at ClickerExpo last week: ”Every once in a while I try to take a shortcut, and usually I end up regretting it. I think, ‘Why did I do that? I know better.’”
I asked for a simple behavior, clicked, scattered a handful of treats for Valenzia to chase so she didn’t end the session completely frustrated, and picked up the target. When your dog clearly tells you you’re doing it wrong, it’s time to take a break.