Using Management While Clicker Training

Beetle in his mud boots
Beetle in his mud boots

One of the first things I tell clients is that both management and training are essential to living happily with a dog.  There is no magic wand to wave, and so unless I want Beetle, pictured at left, to go into my house with that mud, I need to MANAGE the situation.

Beetle has not been trained to wipe his feet, or hose himself off, or that when his feet are muddy, he must wait for me to clean them before going into the house.  If I neglect to shut the mudroom door, and he trots his muddy feet into the house, then I need to go to that special place in my house for banging my head against the wall (which is the only appropriate response when a dog does not do as I had hoped).

It is not fair to yell at him as he trots through the house (I would argue it’s never fair to yell, but that comes later).  He doesn’t know better.  I used that phrase- “he knows better!” for a long time, but I have no idea why I thought a dog would know anything other than what I taught him.  And if I never taught him to stop and wait at the door, then why would he?

I know many people who train their dogs to wait until their feet are wiped off before going inside.  I could do that as well, but I would have to go through a training process (no wand waving) to teach that.  I would need to train that long before mud season if I expected it to be a solid behavior in mud season.  I would need to hold myself accountable if the dog did not wait; if he doesn’t wait, then I haven’t done a good enough job of training it.

I would also need to make sure I reinforced the dog (with a click and a treat) for waiting at the door even if he wasn’t muddy.  I can’t let him walk into the house without waiting on dry, sunny days and then be upset if he doesn’t stop when his feet are muddy.  I think that’s where some people get frustrated thinking that the dog “knows better”.  THEY know that they always stop the dog to dry off his feet when it’s muddy so they think the dog should figure it out as well.

Dogs pick up on many cues- but they aren’t always the cues we think they are.  “Muddy feet” is not a cue easily distinguished to a dog who has no problem with muddy feet and barely 286340_10151053062730925_368639312_onotices.

Today I worked with Eloise on a similar behavior: waiting until I asked her to get into the car.  She is very good about jumping into the car promptly as soon as I open the door.  It’s quite handy most of the time…but not when she looks like this.  So I realized it is my responsibility to teach her to wait until I tell her to jump in.  We practiced that many times today.  I approached the car and then opened the door a tiny bit and then gave her a click and a treat while she waited outside the car.  I shut the door and did it again.

Here I was managing her ability to get in the car.  Before, the door opening was a cue to jump in- a strong cue.  I didn’t want her to make a mistake and jump in- that would have been practicing behavior I didn’t want.  I want to practice behavior I do want- that’s what makes it stronger.  If I only opened the door a crack, she couldn’t jump in- she was bound to be successful and she was learning in baby steps.  The next time I opened the door a tiny bit further- click and treat for waiting.

I continued to increase the amount I opened the door each time, but by now, she realized she was getting treats for just standing outside the door, so the urge to jump in was gone.  Finally I could open the door all the way and she just waited for her treat outside. Then I said “hup”, which basically means jump up on something to my dogs, and she jumped in the car for which she got another click and treat.  I want both behaviors to be equally as strong.

After practicing this several times, I noticed that Eloise was hesitating as we approached the car, rather than dancing excitedly to get in.  That was information to me that she was starting to realize that every time we approached the car, she would be expected to wait.  Eventually, approaching the car will become the cue to wait outside the door…as long as I am consistent in remembering to ask her every time!  At that point, I will no longer need to go through the stages of opening the door many times, but I will still reinforce her for waiting- and jumping in.


Expo Inspiration: Which Clicker Training Project to Choose?

The annual Clicker Expo (East) was held last weekend in Virginia Beach (it’s in a different city each year).  I flew down Thursday and arrived in time to meet up with old friends and new at the reception.  As this is my third Expo, I found I’ve gotten a little jaded- I now know that the people there will be kind and encouraging, the dogs well behaved and happy.  My first year I was astonished by the overall positive feel of the place!  It doesn’t make it any less wonderful to be surrounded by all that reinforcement, however.

The challenge, after hearing lectures, watching labs and sharing stories with fellow trainers, is which projects to take on upon my return.  There are so many things I want to do!  I started off by attending Ken Ramirez’s lecture, “What a Concept: New Frontiers in Concept Training” followed by observing the associated lab where a dozen or so dogs and handlers got to try out some beginning concept training under Ken’s guidance.

Ken covered three basic concepts: Match to Sample (where the dog is shown an object and then must choose an identical object from a collection of varied items); Do As I Do (where the dog mimics either another dog or his handler); and Counting (in which the dog demonstrates an ability to distinguish the number of objects in a collection).   When I walked out of that lab, I wanted to attempt all three projects and I wanted to do them with both dogs and horses.

On Saturday, I started the morning by listening to Laurie Luck‘s lecture “At Your Service: Teaching Service Dog Behaviors”.  The lab for this lecture was at the end of the day.  In her lecture, Laurie stressed that the things a service dog does are “just behaviors”.  They can be trained just like any other behavior, once you break them down into manageable components.  In the lab, she coached many dog/handler teams through the beginning of teaching a dog the opposites “push” and “pull” and then scent detection, as a service dog who learns to alert a diabetic to low blood sugar would.

This little dog captured my attention in the Service Dog lab.
This little dog captured my attention in the service dog lab- she loved the “pull” exercise where her love of tugging produced quite a vigorous pull!

This lab rekindled my desire to do some nose work with Beetle (whose sight and hearing have faded with age, but whose nose works just fine!).

The topic which surprised me most was the lecture Hannah Branigan gave, “Obedience Competition: Break It Down to Build It Up!”. I have not previously been interested in obedience competition for dogs, but this talk opened my eyes to the many different behaviors required of these dogs AND I was hit with a realization of how useful the techniques Hannah explained would be for Dressage with horses.  My mind was just popping with connections and it’s one of the things I love about learning about training dogs- takes me right outside the box with the horses.   I could not attend the lab with this lecture (we are limited to one lab per day so that everyone gets a chance to get in to limited space), but the talk did inspire me to attend another lecture of Hannah’s on Sunday, “Prep School for Competition Dogs”.   By the end of this, I was thinking it would be fun to do some of these exercises with Eloise until the snow melts and I can try them with the horses.

On Sunday, I was able to be a coach in Kay Laurence‘s lab “The Craft of Fine Slicing”.   In this lab, Kay asked participants what behaviors they would like to teach, and she then showed them how to slice these behaviors down into the smallest beginning components- where do you start to teach a dog to back, to turn to left or right or to cross its paws?  She stressed the importance of a base position- a position from which you can begin to shape other behaviors.  She frequently likes to begin with a base position of “standing with stillness”.  This means the dog is simply standing and waiting for your guidance.  I decided that with all the glory of the things I had seen over the weekend, that was probably a good place to start.

Kay had demonstrated how she tossed treats behind the dog and then clicked as he returned while he was still standing. Many dogs have a “default” behavior of sitting or lying down- we train these early and they are pretty strong.  Eloise well knows that if there is any question, it’s a good idea to hit the ground.  Trying to catch a dog whose legs are only 6 inches long before she drops is a hard thing to do!  I was tossing treats as Kay had, but Eloise kept sliding right into a sit or down when she came back.  Kay, and others, have stressed the importance of observing and setting the dogs up for success so I watched and tried to figure out what I could do.  At one point, I tossed a treat higher than previously and Eloise jumped up to snatch it out of the air- that time she came back and stood in front of me, ready to leap up again.  Aha!  That was the way I could keep her on her feet.  I tossed the next ten treats up, she jumped up to catch them and then stood waiting for the next one.  I could then click as she stood, even withholding the click for a few seconds as she continued to stand, and then toss another treat.  Ten clicks, ten stands.  We have a start.

I still have plans for the other projects.  I also began Beetle on the nose work this afternoon.  But one thing at a time.  There were many other lectures I attended which addressed more nuanced topics of how to go about training- with luck, I will retain those thoughts to be woven into my daily interactions.

Standing with stillness
Standing with stillness

Meet Eloise!


This is Eloise.  She is the face of The Dog Chapter at Bookends Farm.  Eloise came to live at Bookends Farm when she was a year and a half old.  She had a different name then and her people decided she wasn’t happy living in an apartment and spending a lot of time in a crate.  They were right.  They contacted a woman named Pauline who worked with Russell Refuge (Pauline now has her own rescue called Jacks Galore!).  I was looking for a snugly little girl and so Beetle and I went down to meet her.


She did not try to take Beetle’s tennis ball away from her so he said it was ok if she came home with us.  We named her Eloise because everyone at Bookends Farm and The Dog Chapter has a book themed name- she is named for Eloise in the children’s book…a wild haired little girl.  That Eloise lives in the city at the top of the Plaza Hotel.  This Eloise came to live on a farm.

The other thing about everyone at The Dog Chapter and Bookends Farm is that we use Clicker Training and Positive Reinforcement to do all our training.  And that is what this blog will be about.  I’m Jane, by the way.  I will be sharing stories of how Clicker Training and Positive Reinforcement work to be the best training we can use for our friends.