When the Farmer asked what I was doing, I gave him a quick intro to shaping behaviors, markers and positive reinforcement. He gave me a look that said, "I married a crazy woman." I am very familiar with that look.
I'm happy to report Phoenix mastered box-sitting in two sessions. (Time to get a smaller box.) After three sessions, Jamie is happily swatting the box with his paw.
No, that doesn't mean Phoenix is smarter than his bro (I haven't had to haul Jamie to the vet to get stitched up after crashing into a rotary hoe), it just means I've shaped some other behaviors with a clicker and Nix clearly understands how the program works. Earlier this summer he learned to sit in a PVC box, although that was substantially bigger and didn't have sides. Jamie, on the other hand, did not experience much clicker training during his trialing career and is still working through the why's and wherefores of how it all works and why won't you just give me the cookie NOW!
Actually, Jamie's first box training session consisted of him picking up the box and bringing it to me 24 times. Yep, 24. I counted. Finally he got disgusted and just sat and stared at me. He finally adjusted his sit, moved one paw closer to the box (yes, probably by accident), got clicked and cookied and we ended the session.
Truth be told, Phoenix's first session started out pretty much the same way. All he wanted to do was fetch the box. Who taught these dogs to retrieve everything?! The difference between him and Jamie was that he figured out much more quickly that fetching was not going to be rewarded and started experimenting with new behaviors. We ended the first session with his two front feet planted firmly in the box.
Nix's second session included a lot of other experimental behavior, much of it involving his teeth. At one point I was pretty sure the game was going to be over until I could find a new box but a little duct tape worked wonders.
Jamie's second session still involved a lot of fetching, although not as much, and some very tentative experimenting with other options. By his third session, he didn't even try fetching the box and soon started pawing at it.
I'm sure some die-hard obedience people (along with the Farmer) are thinking "What is the point of all this?" Well, it's just plain fun for one thing. Knowing you're never going to be judged and scored on your dog's ability to sit in a box takes all the pressure off so you don't have to get all tense and freaky obsessive about it, which I admit to doing with obedience exercises from time to time. But mostly I am doing it to make my dog think. I want a thinking dog no matter what venue we're training for. I want a dog who is willing to keep trying even if he's not getting a reward for every little thing.
Do I use a clicker to teach everything? No, of course not. But it's a valuable tool and one I want to work with more this winter. I know a lot of people don't "believe in" clicker training but I suspect they've seen it used poorly or just don't understand how it works. I've seen trainers use leashes and collars poorly, too, but in the right hands, they can produce magic results.
So the next step is to down-size Phoenix's box and keep working with Jamie to put one paw in the original box. And to come up with some new tricks to teach over the winter. One thing I've started has been teaching "Bounce" on a verbal command. I say it and Nix goes leaping around like a crazed jumping bean. He has even incorporated it into the left finish which is very cute but horribly crooked at this point. We have a lot to work on this winter.