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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An easy recipe is to take 1 pound of ground chicken, 1 cup of bread crumbs or flour or cornmeal, 2 Tablespoons of grated cheese, 1 Tablespoon of garlic, mix together and roll out on a cookie sheet. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Let cool and cut into small pieces. Other meats may be substituted for the chicken such as a can of tuna or salmon…the consistency of the treats will change depending on bread crumbs or cornmeal and meats used.
If developing a toy reward system try placing meals in a kong or other toy device that will encourage the dog to be more interested in the toy. Even if the dog is already focused on the toy, this training will develop an even greater interest in the toy. When using a toy as a reward in training, do not create a struggle with the dog over releasing the toy. Exchange it with food and make sure to train the release separately so it is rewarding for the dog to give up the toy. Many breeds are very possessive over their toy and handlers make this too big of an issue. The dog often runs away with the toy knowing the handler will fight for it. Put the toy on a line and pull the dog back in to re-engage in play. The toy is released and the dog wins but the trainer has the end of the line and reels the dog back in to play again. When the play session is over and the trials are finished then allow the dog to go back to the kennel with the toy.
Be creative with how you reward the animal. Food may be used during the training session and a jackpot with the toy reward may end a session. The flow of training must be kept constant as that allows for more behaviors in a timed trial. More repetition of the target behavior develops the dog’s memory for that response. If playing with a toy or fighting to get the dog to release a toy stops the flow in any way, then reward with the toy at the end of the training session. Once the dog is easily releasing the toy on command then the toy may be used as a primary reinforcer during trials and varied with food rewards.
The primary reinforcer may be varied at any point in training. Use several different types of foods and toys so the dog never knows what to expect. Training is all about keeping the focus of the animal and if the trainer is unpredictable with the reward system, then the animal is more interested.
Conditioning to People
Next the dog must be conditioned to people. Start by having everyone give treats to the dog at training. Watch the behavior of the dog and make sure it is comfortable with people. During the week away from search training, the handler should take the dog to parks, schools, airports and other public places to develop good social skills with strangers by asking everyone to give treats to the dog. The dog soon realizes that everyone in its world loves him and will have good treats to give. Below is a list of displacement behaviors to watch for during this phase of training:
Diverted eye gaze
Sniffing the ground
Submissive urination or licking
Pulling away from the stranger
If any of the above behaviors occur, then continue socializing the dog until it becomes more focused on people. Starting bark alert training at this point would shut the dog down as it would not be comfortable enough to bark in the face of a stranger. This would place the dog in conflict and create more displacement behavior eventually leading to a dog that is unreliable with the bark alert in the field.
Once the criteria is met with focus on people with food, then have the dog play toys with people it feels comfortable with. At training sessions the dog can play with several people by passing off the toy (if tug is the game) to another person. The handler stands close by but does not engage with the dog at this time. All play comes from the helpers. The handler is the dog’s security system so watch to see if the dog acknowledges the handler’s presence or lack of.
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Gradually increase the distance from the handler and dog during the play sessions until the handler is out of sight and the dog remains engaged with the helper(s). Once this occurs then the dog is comfortable and is ready to begin the bark alert.
The handler begins the shaping of the bark alert. Shaping a behavior means to mark successive approximations to the final behavior. This means if the dog will only whine, then that is a small step towards the final behavior, so mark (click) and reward the whine. Eventually the dog will give a stronger response and when that begins to happen then the handler’s criteria for the bark increases. Then the handler marks only a bark and not a whine. If at any time the dog’s behavior diminishes, drop criteria and make it easier to achieve a reward. A training session should only last for 5 minutes then the dog should be given a break. A young dog may only have a 3 minute session before resting it due to the shorter attention span. During the training period the handler should have someone keep track of the number of responses. This will help determine when to raise or lower the criteria during the training session.
The quality of the bark should be noted during this time. Make sure to mark only strong barks…no air barks or whines. The weaker barks will diminish as the dog understands the type of bark that makes the click occur. Note the frequency of the bark…are there two or three barks then a pause or is the bark rhythmic? Many dogs will bounce their paws as they bark. This is the rhythmic bark alert where the dog responds to a find with a consistent, focused bark until the handler arrives to acknowledge the find. This is the goal to work towards and is obtainable by doing your ground work and building the foundation of the bark indication before putting it all together in the search arena.
Once the bark is occurring spontaneously, the handler should increase the duration and build up to a consistent strong bark that occurs in a rhythmic form for thirty seconds. During duration building the bark is placed on a variable reinforcement schedule. At this point the dog should have all strong barks and the handler is working on marking numbers of barks. For instance the first trial will be 10 barks and reward, then 5 barks and reward, then 8 barks and reward, then 20 barks and big reward since the dog worked harder on the last one. The variable schedule will make the dog work harder as it does not know when the reward is coming but do not try to push the dog too fast or the behavior will drop. Read the dog and know when to push and when to drop back. This is similar to marathon training. One day the run is long and 4 days the run is of shorter duration. A continual lengthening of duration without dropping back to shorter numbers will discourage a dog and develop a slower response as the animal knows it has to do a longer and longer trial before the reward occurs. But an animal will work harder when there is one long trial and 6 shorter ones with a payoff.
Handlers may be creative with the bark games to play at home. A toy can be thrown out of reach of the dog and the dog will have to bark to get to it. For example place food or a toy in the dog’s crate and close the door and let the dog bark. Reward by opening the door and allow the dog to get to the item of interest. Have the dog bark for its meal or a treat several times throughout the day. The handler can run into another room and shut the door and get a bark response. Have the dog bark when playing fetch with a toy. Many repetitions of the bark can be done with simple every day interaction with the dog. When the response is strong at home the dog is ready to transfer to another person.
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Transfer to a Helper
When the dog transfers the bark alert training to another person other than the handler, the dog should start with someone it knows and is comfortable with. The bark alert will began from step one as if the dog had never been trained to bark by the handler. The helper starts with only one bark and builds up to marking strong barks. Do short five minute sessions and document frequency of barks during 1 minute increments. A baseline data collection can be done with the handler to determine the number of barks the handler can get from the dog. The helper should use this criteria as a goal to work towards. When the helper is getting the same number of barks from the dog as the handler did in the baseline data then the next step may be taken.
Use a helper the dog isn’t as familiar with and again drop back to the beginning. Note behavior during these training sessions. If any displacement activity occurs then drop back to just giving the dog treats and develop a comfort level with the dog before going on to the bark training with the new person. The handler stands close to the dog during the sessions but does not say anything. Eventually the handler will increase the distance away from the dog as the comfort level is built and the dog shows complete engagement with the helper. This develops confidence in the dog and the ability to work away from the handler so that handler dependency never becomes an issue.
The helpers are varied before doing different body positions. Once the dog is relaxed with the exercise then positions and expressions of the helpers are varied. The helpers will initially look away when trying to get the bark alert, then they will look directly at the dog. Expressions are changed and unusual noises are made such as high squeals and moaning. The helper can be dressed up to look odd with strange hats, glasses, clothing, coats, etc. Positions are changed to sitting, prone, supine, standing, squatting, and rolling on the ground. This is desensitization training for anything unusual the dog will encounter during its search career.
Short quick runaways (RA’s) may be done either before the desensitization training or at the same time. Initially the RA is only several feet. A series of quick drops are done with the handler running up to retrieve the dog during reward from the helper. The first series of RA’s is rewarded on arrival to the helper without a bark. The dog should understand the game after the first trial of quick successive runaways and immediate reward. Then change to quick successive runaways with three to five barks on arrival. This is a fun training game for the dog and can be done as a motivational tool throughout the dog’s training career.
Eventually the RA will lead to an out of sight problem. Remember the new variable is the RA so lower the criteria for the bark response to only a few barks. If the bark training has been built correctly, there should not be any sign of displacement behavior with this step. The criteria is a quick direct line to the helper without stopping to sniff the ground. If the dog stops to sniff, then stop the trial immediately without reward. DO NOT allow the dog to engage in a long repertoire of unwanted behaviors . This is sloppy training and will carry over in the future. The dog does not have to end on a high note each and every time. If this becomes the issue then the handler will allow the dog to engage in this activity which then becomes a long chain of sniffing, messing around, then bark alert. Be very concise in the final picture and be very clear to the dog about your expectations. Do not correct for these behaviors by giving a verbal “no”, rather take the dog and restart the trial. The correction is not getting to the toy reward. Ongoing verbal corrections drop the confidence level of the dog during early phases of training.
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Begin hiding the helper in props such as bark barrels, boxes, or under objects such as clothing, pallets, rubble, wood, etc. Drop back each time a new variable is added. Begin with runaways into the new objects and leave the doors open. The dog is instantly rewarded on arriving to the new prop. No bark has to occur until the dog feels comfortable with the new object. Then slowly build up the bark response at the prop. This is also how to develop comfort in new training areas. Initially the dog is introduced to the new object/prop or training area by walking the dog around the area. Let the dog explore new things first without adding the stress of barking to the picture. Make sure there are no signs of anxiety with the new area before beginning the bark training. Always take very small steps when any variable has changed—topography, new person, or multiple hidden helper problems. Remember not all dogs are the same. Some will breeze through all the steps without any issues, some may have a couple issues but will overcome them quickly and develop a reliable bark alert if shaped correctly and steps repeated when necessary.
Distraction training is added slowly to make sure the response of barking has been conditioned in the dog. Distractions can be in many forms such as other people standing around, dogs playing nearby, noises such as heavy machinery, animals, and food. Try to keep control of the situation when adding distractions. If using food then keep it in a container not accessible to the dog. If at any time the dog loses focus on the job at hand then immediately stop the trial and gain control of the dog. It is not necessary to reprimand the dog. It is better to show no emotion and collect the dog to restart. Reassess the situation and determine if the distance from the distraction is too close. You will determine baseline distance parameters by doing this or in other words the distance needed before the dog will react to the outside influence. Keep the distraction at that point or beyond until the dog is repeating the trials successfully, then decrease the distance and lower the criteria for the bark.
Keep training exciting and variable. Use several different locations as training sites so that there is a natural variety of distractions already available. This prepares the dog for the real world. The final product will be a dog that maintains its bark alert in all environments with or without distractions.
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