Monday, August 8, 2011

Reach out and touch someone

STOP! Go no further until you read the following disclaimer!

I am NOT bashing clicker training. I use a clicker for some things in training. I do not click everything. I do not think people who want to click everything are bad, misguided, stupid or lazy. I think they just choose to train differently than I do. And that’s fine. I am not so egocentric that I expect everyone to do exactly what I do. I do not advocate harsh physical training. But I do like to touch my dogs. A lot. I am a certified dog-toucher. And that’s what I want to write about today.

Thank you. Read on.

The Random House College Dictionary defines “compulsion” as “The state or condition of being compelled.” If I jerk my dog’s head up and shove his bottom down on the floor, I am compelling him to sit. If I lure him with a hot dog over his head until he collapses backward into a sit (an awful, rock-back sit, by the way), I am also compelling him to sit.

By that definition, every person who trains a dog to perform a certain behavior is compulsion trainer because we are COMPELLING our dogs to do things they probably wouldn’t be doing at that moment if left to their own devices.

But admittedly, this is probably not what most people think of when the word “compulsion” is used in the context of dog training. Like “correction” it comes negatively loaded with images of force and dominance that relies on pain or threat to achieve the desired end. (I think people must have thought I was beating Phoenix with a nail-studded 2x4, from some of the reactions I got when I mentioned giving him “corrections.” Seriously.)

With that in mind, it’s little wonder the popularity of “shaping” behaviors by using a clicker has never been higher. I have taught Phoenix a number of things using a clicker — including weavepoles that are accurate and fast about 99 percent of the time in the ring, providing I do my part as a handler. I’ve also taught him some silly tricks and a few other behaviors that are connected to obedience skills, so I recognize the value of this type of training. It’s a tool in my training toolbox but it’s not the ONLY tool.

I am seeing more and more people these days who seem reluctant to actually put their hands on their dogs to help them learn and would prefer to click away, never touching their dog. This baffles me. But if it works for you (and I know it does, at least for some), then it’s a wonderful thing and don’t stop. And yes, I know there are some things you just CAN’T teach by physical positioning and the clicker is perfect for that.

I’m certainly NOT advocating a return to the jerk and yank days of training. It makes me CRAZY to watch someone trying to physically force their dog into a position. Too often, pulling and pushing just generates opposition reflex (which can be useful when teaching the dog to “lock up” on stays) but otherwise just turns into a battle of wills if you’re trying to force a dog into a position he does not want to assume.

And you’ll lose every time, even if you DO manage to shove the dog into the desired position, because depending on your dog’s temperament, he’ll either be very annoyed or very confused or very scared or possibly all three. Clicker training DOES manage to avoid this scenario because you can (eventually) get a behavior without having to touch the dog. Maybe I already said that.

Some obedience behaviors must be performed in specific way and I’m just not patient enough to wait for my dog to do something vaguely related to the end product so I can click and treat it. ( I think that’s the real basis of why I don’t click more things — I’m not patient enough.) Yeah, I’ll use a clicker to teach tricks because they’re silly and frankly, I don’t care if we ever totally master them. Plus, I don’t know how in the world I’d teach some of the goofy tricks Phoenix does without shaping them with a clicker.

But when it comes to obedience skills, I have a very clear picture of the desired end result and (hopefully!) a clear set of steps I plan to use to achieve it in a reasonable amount of time. While I totally agree that dogs learn, remember and perform best when they are taught using methods that encourage them to think, not react to a show of force, I want to cut through that vague gray area of “Is this what you want?” “Or this?” “Or maybe this?” and be as specific as I can from the very start. THIS is how you do a sit. THIS is how you do a down. And I want to teach “hands on,” with my touch being part of the training experience from Day One.

Personally, I cannot keep my hands off my dogs, either in training or day to day life. I love touching them. Jamie and Phoenix touch each other a lot. They nuzzle, poke, paw, nibble, push, sniff and bite. They touch ME a lot, too, very often in the same way. They seek out my touch, resting their head in my lap or nudging my hands or — heaven forbid — jumping up on me to lick my face. I love petting them, ruffling their fur, stroking their ears, sliding my hands over lean ribs and hard muscles, playing with their feet. They wiggle and lean into my touch, pushing at me and returning the affection. It seems a natural thing to touch them in the context of training. I want that sense of mutual enjoyment to transfer into training, as both encouragement, support and reward.

Here’s an example - the tuck sit. I love sitting on the floor with a new puppy and bowl of treats, guiding his head up and forward while scooping his little butt forward, tucking his paws in, stroking him and encouraging him to sit “tight.” This IS shaping, although not in the purists’ sense of the word, which would involve rewarding a small string of behaviors until arriving at the final behavior, apparently without ever touching the dog. I can’t do that. It’s a puppy. I have to touch it, guide it, mold it, help it learn. With luck, it will only be in my life for 10-15 years. I can’t possibly touch it enough in that short time.

See, I keep coming back to that. I’m really not a touchy-feely person. I would prefer NOT to be touched by people beyond close friends. But I can’t keep my hands off dogs - my dogs, your dogs . . . it’s a wonder I never got bitten as a child before I knew better because if I saw a dog, I had to touch it. It took a while before I learned how to recognize when a dog didn’t WANT to be touched and that was valuable, too.

Just food for thought today. Happy training.


  1. Okay, I'll 'bite' on this one!! G

    First off, I'm allergic to dogs. Yep, on a scale of 1-5 (5 being the highest), I'm a 5!! So, I try not to touch my dogs. Okay, so I give myself shots so I can touch the dogs. It's a sacrifice I'm willing to bear.

    I think how you train is up to you. IMO, inconsistency in training vs. what is accepted in the ring is the biggest issue for most dog/human teams.

    What's expected in training (2o2o for contacts, and start line stays, for example), and the acceptance of 'less' in the ring causes so many problems down the road.

    Then handlers get angry at the dog at trials. Makes me crazy! Can I please have $100 for each time I've heard "You Know How to DO THIS!!"

    At the next practice, the handler 'might' challenge the dog on a contact, or stay, and the dog is perfect. (Do you know how many times THOSE go unrewarded???) Or if the dog messes up, the handler picks the dog up by the scruff, and tosses them back onto the contact. Or the dog is verbally scolded on the way back to the start line. You think I'm kidding??

    Back at the trial, the criteria is 'relaxed' as long as you are still 'qualifying'. No wonder they are confused.

    At the table, maybe the dog doesn't drop fast enough, so the handler 'flat palms' them on top of the head. No wonder the dog ducks and blinks whenever your hand comes up.

    Let me talk about Water Work for a second.

    Working a PWD between 2 boats, people (notice I didn't say trainers!), put a long line on the dog to keep it from going to shore in training. To H*ll with actually 'training the dog to WANT to stay out in the water'. Let alone conditioning them. Care to guess what happens at the test?

    Another fairly common problem, the dog doesn't want to jump off the boat, so let's just push them into the water. Boy, that sure builds some 'want to'!!! The 'You'll do it because I said so.' theory at work here.

    I've never seen an ear pinch retrieve for water work, but I'm sure it's out there. WHY????

    Dogs running the beach away from the handler! There are times I want to run too!!

    Gentle hands are fine, but I see a lot more pulling, jerking, grabbing, scruffing, pinching, than I'd really care to.

    Sometimes it really makes me wonder if these people really love their dogs, or if they are just an 'object' to help them get a title and recognition.

  2. I agree about that "object" thing. I see too many people yelling at their dogs, acting angry and upset at the end of the run while the dog is just trying to have fun. So sad.

  3. I assist at a school that focuses mostly on positive reinforcement as a training method. The one class that really rubs me the wrong way is when we teach the dogs to stay. The curriculum calls for the handler to place the dog back in a sit each time the stay is broken. It is the only time I see the dogs genuinely stressed in class. At this point I very much wish we used another method. They're confused and haven't been properly conditioned to accept placement previously. If there's one thing I could change, it would be that.

    As for touching dogs in general, I think it's very important to condition a dog to a collar grab, as well as rudimentary body handling. When I see people progressing too quickly and stressing their dogs that's what bothers me.

  4. Just to highlight how much different things work well for different people, I really had to smile at how you described de-emphasizing clicker training for things that really matter because you are impatient...... whereas I go around telling people that I use the clicker because I find it more efficient, and I am impatient. I also find it amusing that you taught your dog weaves with the clicker, because although I think I am a reasonably skilled and committed clicker trainer, I could not get my dog to understand the 2x2 weave clicker method. I even took a private lesson to try to see what I was doing wrong. I ended up using guides. But I digress....

    Since I had 10 years of dog training behind me before I touched a clicker for the first time, I know that I do not treat my dogs like dolphins, i.e. I am not a purist. But, like you, I have Malinois, and while their temperaments are quite sound, mine do not respond at all well to being molded. If I want to wreck a training session, all I have to do is start trying to hand position my dogs. They love being touched, but they hate being molded. One of your earlier posts talked about taking your dog's head in your hands and keeping him watching you by that method. I tried that, and it just turned into a struggle. Perhaps I didn't do it right. Nothing was learned. Correction: I learned that doing that did not work for us. Both of my dogs immediately oppose any attempt to put them into a position using my hands. Thinking back, I don't remember any dog I've ever had that liked being positioned.

    Re the tuck sit, there is really no problem clicker training a tuck sit without scooping the hind end in. I don't see that what you described is hurting anything, I just wanted to say that it is equally easily accomplished (with most dogs) without the hands.

  5. I start all my new puppies with 'hands on' training. In fact before I ever start any behavior training, I am teaching them that I can touch them anywhere, any time and can put their parts wherever I want. If they struggle, I wait them out and then release and reward. I don't allow teeth on skin or out-of-control rough play. I teach a 'stop button' for when play gets to rough. I never allow teeth to touch skin or clothing (not even accidentally), but all other play is fair game.

    I also start teaching my puppy with the clicker - targets, sit, down, wait, name recognition, etc. But I also use my hands to be sure the learned behavior is what I want in the obedience ring. But I mostly do hands-on molding with both praise/rewards and consequences for errors, much like Melissa does, whether it is just withholding the reward, marking it with an 'oops' or a collar pop or ear pinch. (Call the police - I'm abusing my dog!)

    The biggest benefit of teaching a dog with your hands is that you get to touch your dog! And in an emergency, you don't have a dog saying 'what the heck?' when you grab at its collar or pick it up.