By Susan Martinez
Greater Houston Search Dogs
The bark indication is shaped by using a marker as a communication tool to tell the animal the correct response the handler wants. The marker traditionally used for animals has been the clicker, which is a plastic children’s toy that makes a noise. Whistles have been used to mark behaviors with dolphins due to the distance the animal works away from the trainer. When a trainer marks a behavior the animal does correctly, the trainer “bridges” a gap from time of response to the time when the reward is given. The importance of this bridge is that the animal is able to acknowledge the correct response that produced the reward from the trainer.
To begin training the animal to acknowledge the clicker as a secondary reinforcer, the “click” is paired with a primary reinforcer…food or toy. Food is easy to give and doesn’t stop the flow of training whereas a toy would as the trainer has to stop and play with the animal after each trial. To fire up the clicker simply do a rapid click/reward almost simultaneously without asking the animal to do anything. The animal begins to recognize that food will come each time it hears the click. This is conditioning the response to the clicker by taking a previously neutral stimulus (the click) and developing the noise of the click to function as a reinforcer after being paired a number of times with an established reinforcer (food).
Timing of the clicker is one of the most important points of this type of training, so exercises that will develop the trainer’s skills to deliver a quick click at the crucial moment in training are the following:
Continue developing your skills until you are very accurate with clicking before training an animal. There are too many things to watch with an animal’s behavior during a training session. New trainers frequently find themselves clicking the wrong behavior simply because their marking skills are too slow. This is a mechanical skill that needs to be mastered in order to achieve a high level of success in training fine precision behaviors in an animal.
- Throw a set of car keys up in the air and click when you catch them in your hand. Try to get this to the point where the catching of the keys and the click occur almost simultaneously.
- Drop the keys to the floor and when you anticipate the keys hitting the floor, click at the same time. You will be able to acknowledge your accuracy by the sound of the keys hitting the floor as compared to timing with your click.
The next important step is identifying the reward system for the animal. Each dog is different in its desires and food tastes but most dogs will become more focused on a food reward if they are hungry. Decrease the dog’s meals and supplement with treats during training or use the meal times as a training session. Dogs that are overweight are not going to be as focused on a food reward, so trimming them up will help increase their focus during a training session.
Types of food rewards also need to be noted. Treats can be made using chicken breasts, steak, liver, or any meat. Sprinkle the meat with garlic and grill, then cut in small pieces. Try to use soft food so the dog swallows easily and doesn’t choke when trying to eat and bark. Hot dogs, cheese pieces or cheese whiz, baby food, tuna, salmon, and homemade treats also work well.
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