Sunday, October 10, 2010

Degree Of Difficulty

This is one of my favorite pictures, Cali, a 16 month old Labrador Retriever, winning the Best Trick Contest at Bark For Life this past June.  I'm sure Cali and Judy had practiced this trick (crawling)  MANY times prior to the contest.   In the early stages of training Judy would Click/Treat the smallest pieces of the behavior, an elbow bent, a small crouch, the slightest movement forward, etc.  Once the behavior was taking shape, Judy gave it a name, CRAWL, and continued to reinforce Cali for correct responses.  From there they practiced in a variety of locations so training would generalize.  When Judy was able to cue Cali to CRAWL in multiple locations she was on her way to having a nice solid behavior.  The day of the contest was the ultimate challenge for Cali, responding to a cue in a strange place, in front of  cheering strangers and with many dogs nearby distracting her.  She performed her CRAWL like a champ and walked away with the Blue Ribbon!

Last week I was talking with a friend about the proper use of Food Rewards in training, when to treat, when to fade out the treats, what comes after the treats, etc.  I think many people become confused about the proper use of using food rewards in training.  There are 4 simple rules to clicker training:

1. Get the Behavior through shaping and capturing
2. Reinforce it steadily, lots of Clicks and Treats,  so that it increases in frequency
3. When it’s offered regularly and with ease, ADD A CUE
4. When the behavior is well trained, fade the use of the Clicker and treats.

It sounds so simple doesn't it, but for the average dog handler it's complicated.  In the early stages of training we are using continuous reinforcement, LOTS of Clicks and Treats to strengthen behaviors.    We want to teach Fido to SIT in a variety of environments, at home, at the park, at the Vet, in Class, when he's excited and when he would rather be doing something else.    When progress is being made we then want to start fading out the Clicker and Treats.  This is where it gets tricky!!  A dog may have a wonderful SIT at home but at the Park he seems to have forgotten all his training.   The handler is frustrated because at home they have already faded the Clicker and Treats for SITS but Fido still needs help when working in public.  This is where I use the Degree of Difficulty program.   I start by assessing my dogs current level of training to determine which behaviors are fluent.  For example, Fido has a great Sit at home and in Class, but when we go to the Vet or the Park he does not respond to the Sit cue.  It's safe to say that Fido needs more practice working in areas with high levels of distraction.  When he is at home or in class he is comfortable and relaxed, but when he goes to strange places the Degree of Difficulty increases, therefore making it harder for him to perform the cued behavior.  He may no longer need Clicks and Treats for SIT at home but he does still need reinforcement for SITS in other locations.  When the Degree of Difficulty increases those are times when reinforcement is still needed.  As the dog gets more practice in multiple environments and situations the Degree of Difficulty will decrease and allow you to fade the Clicker and Treats completely.

It's important to look at your dogs entire training program and break it down into pieces, it gives you a better gauge of your dogs level of training.  My dogs have "Piece of Cake" behaviors, this means it's a no brainer for Faye to Sit, Down, Come, Stay and much more when we are at home or in an environment she has had alot of exposure to.  It is VERY difficult for  her to perform at this same level in a strange environment or one that is full of distractions.  While I may fade the clicker at home I will still use it in other environments until each skill is fluent..   When a dog has become fluent in a skill it's time to replace the Click and Treat with a life reward such at verbal praise, petting, toys, rides in the car, walks, etc.  A Life Reward is something your dog enjoys and finds rewarding.   We will also make the dog work harder by asking for multiple behaviors for a single Click and Treat.  When using this technique it's best to chain together a few beahviors that your dogs knows only Clicking and Treating the last behavior cued.

It is important to note that there is not a 'one size fits all' approach to training, each dog learns at their own pace.  We must also take into account the amount of time we have spent working with our dog and keep our expectations reasonable.   If you only spend a few minutes each week training your dog, don't expect them to perform like a champ.   I often hear people complain that their dog 'should know this stuff, after all we took a class'.   It's not the class that teaches a dog, it's the handler, so practice is important.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.