Clicker-training for cart use

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Clicker-training for Cart use by Bobbie Mayer

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Clicker-training is based on operant conditioning. The clicker (or other noise-maker, even a word such as Good) marks a desired behavior. The behavior is then reinforced with a treat. Reinforced behaviors will occur more frequently. The use of a clicker allows for very precise marking of the behavior you want to get. The clicker also conditions the dog to associate the thing he is doing when he gets clicked with good things. A smart corgi can reason out that it isn’t worth moving just to get that treat, but he doesn’t understand that when he responds to the click you are conditioning him to move!

You may find it useful to practice your timing before beginning clicker-training. Try bounding a ball and clicking each time it hits the ground, or clicking each time the second hand on the clock hits a 5 second interval. This will be especially important with shaping your dog’s cart behavior, as clicking a bit too late may mean you reward stopping instead of moving.

We can use three types of clicker-training here: capturing, or rewarding spontaneous behavior, luring, where we reward behavior after we get the dog to do it by offering a treat, and shaping, where we reward approximations of the behavior until we get the exact behavior we want, moving freely in the cart.

Keep each training session short! No more than 3-4 minutes at a time until you are getting eager behavior. Never force the dog to do anything. Clicker-training can require patience, but will result in a happy dog with no aversions to the cart.

Starting off:

Get a clicker: Simple box clickers are usually available at pet stores. I personally like the i-Click, which I have not seen in a pet store, but it can be purchased online. (I buy them in bulk.) For a sound-sensitive dog you might use a ball point pen. But a simple box clicker works well for most dogs.

Step 1) Charge the clicker. (Click/treat using very good treats such as bits of chicken- these are known as “high-value” treats) until the dog associates the click with the treat. (Takes next to no time in a corgi.) Make sure your treat follows quickly after the click. Once your dog begins looking for the treat when you click, you are ready to go on. This is the beginning of all clicker training, and only needs to be done once.

If your dog seems afraid of the clicker, try a retractable pen. It makes a much softer clicking sound.

Touch: You may want to teach a touch command at this point, especially if you are still waiting for your cart. A touch-stick may be useful during the later phases. Get a stick long enough for you to stand and the tip to be about the level of your dog’s nose. Put a small ball on the bottom or wrap it with tape or something. Now, click/treat when your dog touches the stick. When he is reliably touching the stick, start adding in the command, “Touch.” Later on you can use this touch-stick to get him to move. You can also teach your dog to touch your hand, but it is harder with a small dog to get your hand low enough for a touch command when he is walking in the cart.

Teaching the touch command is a good thing to do while you are waiting for delivery of your cart!

Step 2) While you are figuring out the cart, click/treat every time your dog approaches the cart. The behavior we want here is for your dog to be comfortable around the cart and not act afraid of it. (Do not use the touch-stick here, as you want the dog focused on the cart, not coming to you for some other reason.)

Shaping: Shaping is done by breaking the behavior you want down into tiny steps. It helps to have a target behavior in your mind. For example, in step 2, above, we want our dog to approach the cart freely, without fear, to stand or sit still while it is being moved around (and ultimately while he is placed in it.) But suppose at first he wants nothing to do with it? Sit down and start fiddling with the cart, clicker in hand, treats immediately available. If he shows any sign of approaching you or the cart, click/treat. You may need even tinier steps, with a very fearful dog. Click/treat if he looks at the cart.

Then gradually, you up the ante. If you were clicking looking at the cart, now click making a move in that direction, even if a teeny move. Here is where your precise timing becomes important. Don’t move on to trying to fit the cart until he is not afraid of it. (For most dogs, step 2 is not even an issue, he will be in your face trying to figure out what you are doing long before you are ready to try the cart on him.)

Step 3) When he is comfortable with the cart just being there, lift him into it and click/treat him just for standing in the cart. (For a Doggon Wheels cart you can separately click/treat to get him used to the harness and then the saddle first.) Again, decide what your target behavior is. For example, it might be simply to let you to lift his back legs off the ground and then put them back down, or even as simple as touching him under his back legs (preparatory to lifting him. It all depends on your own dog’s comfort level.

Step 4) Each time you make an adjustment, click and treat him for being in the cart. If he starts to act fearful of the cart, go back to Step 2 for awhile. In fact, while you are making each adjustment, have clicker and treats ready, even if he hasn’t acted afraid in Step 3. Associating the cart with good things may help down the road.

Step 5) Once the cart looks ready to go, get some more really good (high value) treats and click/treat any movement forwards, even so much as lifting up a foot at first. If he won’t lift a foot, click looking towards you. Gradually you will wait for more movement before you click/treat, but you should, in a reluctant dog, keep rewarding any effort until it starts leading to more movement.

Luring: Luring means that you use a treat or other reward to get the behavior. Then, as before, you click/treat the behavior. Hold a treat out and click when your dog moves towards it, then give the treat immediately. Don’t worry if the movement stops when the treat is given, that is normal, and isn’t a problem. It’s the timing of the click that is important, not the timing of the treat. Do not make your dog take any more steps to get the treat. Once you have clicked, you need to follow through with the treat. Then you can repeat the lure, click, treat sequence again.

You may also want to use the touch-stick here. If your dog already knows that touching the stick brings a reward, he may be willing to move a step to touch it.

As your dog starts being more willing to move in the cart, very gradually up the ante. For example, I started with Merlin luring, and clicking when he moved. I did this for a couple of days. Then I changed to clicking only when he moved without a lure, either because I had called him or walked away. Then I changed again, and began clicking only when he was making an attempt to keep up with me. Eventually it will be only when he is keeping up with me.

If you are experienced with clicker-training, you may want to capture the behavior of backing up which most dogs do the first time they are in the cart.

Step 6) When you get a breakthrough, give a “jackpot”, or a bunch of high value treats all at once. This may be for your dog’s first steps, or the first time he approaches the cart, or for running across the yard, whatever has been a sticking point. Don’t hold out for the whole thing, though. (How often would you play the slot machines if the only prize was the million dollar jackpot which was very seldom obtained? The small jackpots keep you in the game.) Merlin got a huge jackpot when he peed the first time out in the cart (and believe me, I clicked when he peed!)

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Step 7) If (or once) your dog takes readily to the cart, you can use the clicker to help teach him to back up when his wheels get stuck on something. You use the same idea- click for any movement that even resembles starting to back up, until you have him backing up when his wheel gets stuck.

Step 8) You can also use the click/treat to teach a very eager dog to stand still while being fastened into his cart, or to put his head through the harness. Wait for him to be still, then click/treat.

Putting the behavior on cue: This means naming the behavior and having your dog do it on command. In traditional training we say, “Sit,” then lure or push the dog into a sit. In clicker-training we get the sit first, then, when he is reliably sitting for the click/treat, we start using the “cue” or command, sit. So, once you have something like backing up working, your dog will back up from a stuck wheel, use a command to tell him to back up. I’ve used “fix it” to get my dogs to step back over their leashes when they are tangled; something similar might work for backing up or unsticking a wheel.

If your dog already knows commands like stand and back up from Rally or Obedience, they can be used to get the behavior you want. But remember to the dog, backing up in a cart is not the same thing as backing up in Rally, so still click/treat any effort to back up, not a finished behavior, at first.

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