Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Clicker Training Labradors - Fun free-shaping
I just had the most fun clicker training 4 of my dogs. Nissa, my youngest, has energy to burn so she came to me looking to play while the others were sleeping off our walk and the heat of the day. I was on my way out to the garden with my basket to collect vegetables, so I decided to train Nissa to pick up the basket. I had dropped my snips into it, but otherwise it was empty. Nissa looked at it, I clicked and treated (c/t). She touched the handle - c/t. She was progressing well. By the time she got about 5 c/t's the other 3 dogs were there wanting to get in on the action. Two of them are 12 yrs old and 95% deaf at this point, but they have been clicker trained since they were 3 or 4 weeks old. Both of them LOVE training and can still hear a click. As I suspected, after watching 2 c/t's old Eponine dove in and started manipulating the basket like mad. We very quickly progressed to c/t for touching only the handle, then putting mouth on it, then lifting it. All the while 3 other dogs were close to the action. Just as I was laughing at how clever and quick Eponine is still, her brother Marius pushed in and picked up the basket by the handle and handed it to me. LOL! This is not the first time that I have seen one dog learn by watching the others. In fact, the roles were reversed when Marius was clicker trained to bring me all of the dog bowls after meals (beginning when he was 4 weeks old and picked up his bowl). It didn't take long watching him get treats for Eponine and their 9 yr old grandmother, Tegan, to instantly begin picking up bowls and bringing them to me. Neither of them had any training by me at all for that task. Tegan did it daily the rest of her life and Eponine and Marius still bring me bowls everyday. Tallulah has started doing it too.
Back to our session: Eponine and Marius were both involved with the basket now with Nissa and Tallulah still within nose reach. Marius put it down to accept his jackpot reward and Eponine picked it up. So Marius reached in and delivered my clippers to me. That's not really new because sometimes he carries them for me when I'm working outside. Still, c/t for a good deed. Basket back on floor, Marius puts his head under the handle and takes hold of the opposite side so he's wearing it on his head. It looks so cute and funny I have to c/t - even though it's not what I was planning. This is a "trap" I often fall into when training - especially group training. It's so much fun I go with the flow and I love to see what they make up. I got the idea from Karen Pryor's story about teaching the dolphins to be creative when I read "Lads Before the Wind" in 1996 and I have played this with my dogs ever since. Please do not do this if you are looking for efficient, tidy training sessions. But if you don't mind going off track and enjoy creativity it IS lots of fun! I don't want them to destroy my nice basket with their enthusiasm, so I get Marius back on only taking the handle and sure enough, Eponine now puts her head through and picks it up by the other side - just as she had seen him do and earn rewards. Eponine and Marius are now stealing the show and being very silly. I love to see them get so animated at this age, so it's hard to discourage them, but time to let someone else try again. Meanwhile, rescue dog Butch has heard the clicks and joined the pack (all 5 dogs now). He doesn't have a clue, but he does know click means treat and I actually taught him to put his paw in my hand with very casual training over our post-dinner carrots this week. I am impressed with how far he has come and I think he is primed for more but not ready for the group circus yet. I take the basket from my old sillies and put it by Nissa and Tallulah. Tallulah is clever and takes her first chance by touching the handle - c/t. She was paying attention. She looks at me out of the corner of her eye clearly asking "Is this right?" Within 5 c/t's she has picked up the basket by the handle and brought it to me across the kitchen. Good Dog! Nissa - well, I will have to give her a chance by herself again. She has not had as much free-shaping as the others. In fact, Eponine and Marius had the most free-shaping when they were kids. Tallulah is 3 yrs old and has had some, but not as much as they had and Nissa is 17 months and has had less. I know better - free-shaping any behaviors, no matter how silly, makes for a clever willing worker. I have done enough with my younger dogs to make them anxious to participate whenever I offer the opportunity, but more is better!
I did free-shape Nissa to shake her head "no" on cue. Since Nissa has not had a lot of free-shaping she tends to offer that when in doubt. I don't worry about it - if I don't give the cue she doesn't get the c/t and if she is doing it really well I go ahead and give the cue with c/t to reinforce the quality. I am a very casual trainer. I love teaching this way and keeping it fun. I teach all of my dogs to heel by free-shaping and other obedience exercises as well. They are great heelers. Free-shaping and clicker training is not just for tricks. For me and my dogs I treat all exercises the same whether it's precision heeling or carrying my veggie basket. If you make it fun, they do it willingly, with enthusiasm, and they don't forget!
Now the kids are sleeping - having some latent learning - and I will finally go out to collect my veggies from the garden. I used to do group free-shaping clicker session with up to 10 dogs years ago. It was always tons of fun. Think it's time I got back into it. Try it. It's wonderful!
I didn't get a photo of our game today, so the photo I chose is of Tallulah as a 5-month old pup when I quickly taught her to hold the wooden spoon for a book cover commission. The hat and scarf are added digitally. You can buy this cute black Labrador Kiss the Chef photo on apparel, aprons, magnets, posters and other products in my OtterTail Art for Dog Lovers Shop.