Class Clicker Techniques, Part Two | Guide Dogs for the Blind Skip to main content

Guide Dog Class Lecture: Class Clicker Techniques, Part Two

Welcome to the second portion of your clicker training workshop. This presentation is not intended as a complete educational tool but as a review of the material covered during your hands-on clicker workshop and a more detailed discussion of applying clicker training to your everyday work with your guide dog.

First we want to review some of the important guide dog handling techniques associated with food reward and clicker training. These custom techniques are designed to prevent negative behaviors surrounding food from developing in your guide. Regardless of the reason you are using food or the behavior you are teaching with the clicker, strive to maintain techniques that are designed to support the manners required in a working guide.

Reminders about General Use of Food Reward
“General” use of food reward means increasing the value of Praise by following Praise with food reward for behaviors the dog already knows and performs well. The Clicker would not be used because you are not teaching a new behavior or you are not trying to modify an existing behavior.

The location of food rewards on your body is important to consider. Rewards need to be easily available, so you can acquire a reward quickly. They should not be visible to your dog until you retrieve it.

The manner in which you retrieve food rewards greatly affects what cues your guide will respond to. Dogs are naturally visual animals, noticing the slightest movements that affect them. They are not naturally verbal and will only respond well to verbal cues that are effectively trained. If visual and verbal cues are used at the same time, dogs will ignore the verbal and respond to the visual.

For instance, if your goal is to reward a distracted dog for focusing back to you on a verbal cue, you must be aware of how you are actually cueing the dog. If while your dog is distracted, you move to get some food out, your dog may notice that movement and suddenly become attentive. Maybe the sound of a Velcro opening on your food pouch gets immediate attention. Don’t fool yourself into thinking your dog responded to you – your dog responded to the movement you made towards your food pouch or the sound of the pouch opening. If you want a dog to respond to “Sit” or “Heel” when distracted: Give the verbal cue first, Ensure your dog first performs the behavior, THEN retrieve the food and reward your dog. In this way the dog realizes the reward appears because of responding to your verbal cue.

Give verbal Praise, while you are retrieving the food and as you are giving the food. This will make your verbal praise more meaningful to your dog. If you are quiet during your movements to retrieve the food, your dog will be focused on your body movements or the sound of you in the food pouch meaning “here comes food.” Make your verbal praise more powerful by letting your dog hear your words of Praise prior to making moves to your food pouch.

You might be thinking that if making noise with the food pouch works well to get your dogs attention, why not use that as a tool? That technique is using what is called a “lure” to get your dogs attention. It would be the same as putting food in front of your dog’s nose while they are looking at a squirrel, and then trying to lure their focus back by moving the food towards you. Are they paying attention to you or the food? The food, of course! And you just told your dog – “looking at squirrels makes food appear”. The real problem with using Lures is that they become requirements to get the dog to perform. This means the dog’s response will not improve and if the reward is not present and of high value to the dog, responses will weaken.

Your goal is to have your dog choose to pay attention to you, and then reward your dog highly for doing so. Then the food reward supplements your verbal praise, making it a higher value and the visual presence of food is not a “requirement” for your dog to respond.

The way you deliver the food reward to your guide dog also has a great impact on the behaviors you will receive from your dog. As most guides are very enthusiastic over food reward, permissive food delivery can result in negative behaviors; like being rough on your hand, jumping up, lunging at dropped food, or curling in front of your body.

We advise giving a single food reward each time to help prevent the accidental dropping of food during food delivery. If you want to give your dog a larger reward, just quickly repeat several food deliveries in a row still using a single food reward. The less food reward you accidentally drop, the fewer opportunities for your guide to be ‘self- rewarded’ for eating food off the ground.

Fully deliver each food reward directly to your dog’s mouth and avoid causing them to reach forward or up for it. This means the food is placed at the dog’s mouth level, not above it. Direct food delivery makes the dog realize that being patient and standing still pays off and there is no need to move from position or grab at the food. When a dog becomes rough on the food delivery hand, the human instinct is to be hesitant (or protective) when moving the hand to the dog’s mouth. This only makes the dog feel they have to work harder to get to the food and they become even rougher. If your dog is becoming overly enthusiastic as they accept the food, push the food into their mouth in a way that causes them to back up a step as you give the reward. Whenever you decide to give your dog a food reward, give it quickly and directly to your dogs’ mouth, without making them feel the need to move upwards or towards your hand to get it. With a dog in heel position, this means bending over and reaching across your body to get directly to their mouth. Effective handling of food delivery will prevent many negative behaviors that can evolve from simple enthusiasm over food reward.

Reviewing Clicker Techniques
Similar to avoiding movements to your food pouch prior to the dog responding, you also must avoid those movements before or during a Click. If your dog sees you move to your food prior to the Click, you are distracting them from noticing the Click. This is called “blocking” the power of the Click.

To maintain the Click as a powerful communication tool, you must Food Reward EVERY time you click AND you must avoid Blocking Clicks with movements that distract your dog.

It’s normal to want to quickly get the food to your dog after each Click. Remember, you have 3 to 4 seconds after the Click to get that reward to your dog’s mouth. That is the beauty of the Clicker. It instantly tells the dog in less than a second “Correct! YOU DID IT! And a Great reward is coming”. The short delay of getting food to the dog does not take away from their understanding of what they did correctly.

So concentrate on being passive with your body during the Click, AND THEN apply your food reward.

The timing of each Click is very powerful, as that is the moment you are rewarding in a very powerful way. For example: If you are working on your dog targeting your closed fist with their nose: You want to Click the very moment you feel the dog’s nose touch your hand. Click as the nose touches, not a second later when the nose is leaving your hand. With traditional training, rewards come after the dog completes a response. With Clicker training you mark the moment the dog initiates the behavior. The Click must come during the behavior to train that behavior, not after it.

The Clicker is only a necessary tool during the teaching process. Once your dog has learned a behavior and responds to whatever verbal cue you have paired with that behavior, the clicker is no longer needed. At that point the new behavior is considered “fluent’ and your verbal Praise is what acknowledges the correct response, with food reward following that Praise.

Later in this presentation we will review when a behavior is ready for adding a verbal cue. For now, let’s continue reviewing some basic skills.

In most situations we advise holding the Clicker in your leash or harness hand, as this leaves your other hand free for training cues and giving food rewards. When teaching a behavior you must have your Clicker at the ready if you are going to be effective at marking a behavior as its happening. If you need to put your clicker away in order to give food reward, then get the clicker ready again, it slows things down. With Clicker training a goal is to apply several repetitions in a short period of time, as this keeps the dog’s interest and results in fast, enthusiastic learning.

The challenge of holding a Clicker along with a leash and/or harness handle is certainly a new mechanical skill to get adept at. With practice and some creativity, guide dog users are effectively using Clickers in their harness hand with ease. Most keep the Clicker on a wrist bracelet when training, so they can let it drop without losing it. Regardless of how you physically deal with the Clicker, remember that you are learning a new mechanical skill and practice will be required. All the instructors had trouble initially adding this piece of equipment to their hands along with the leash and harness, so you are not alone at feeling a bit awkward.

The Three Basic Rules of Clicker Training New Behaviors are:

  1. Get the behavior.
  2. Mark the precise moment the dog is performing the behavior.
  3. Reinforce the behavior.

Getting the behavior can be the most challenging part of training something new to your guide. Remember that for Clicker Training to be the most powerful, the dog should initiate the behavior, meaning it was “their own idea” to try that movement.

Let’s use the hand targeting behavior as an example as we talk about getting a new behavior. If we take the dog by the collar and cue him forward until his nose touches our hand and then Click – that would not be a powerful way to get the behavior because it wasn’t the dog’s idea. The goal is to get the dog to, for some reason, WANT to move towards your hand and sniff it. One way would be to hide a food reward in your hand, which would be using a Lure to just initially get the nose touching your hand. If you use a lure to get a behavior, it’s important to wean off using it very quickly OR the dog will need it as a cue.

Some of you experienced initially using a Lure at the workshop, every other time, to get your dog to move towards and sniff your hand. Then you ceased using the lure after some successful clicks, as the dog willingly moved to touch your target hand, allowing the power of the Clicks with reward to begin the foundation for the behavior. If you had continued to use lures, your dog would have required them to respond.

If your guide is reluctant to leave Heel position, it’s likely that your dog is simply trying to be “good” and thinks that leaving Heel without your permission would be wrong. Be aware of your dog’s attitude and adjust your handling to create a training atmosphere that gives your dog permission to “invent” and try something new. A person might do this by breaking the dog off with the release word “Okay” right before attempts to get a new behavior or just rub the dog all over with an enjoyable and animated “hand grooming” before a clicker session. When dogs are trying to “be good” and stay in Heel position, avoid the use of Obedience words like “Heel” when repositioning for additional repetitions. This helps keep them in a casual state of mind. Instead, use informal leash gestures to reposition the dog for a repetition. Be creative with whatever your individual dog needs to encourage an “inventive” attitude in them, so they are willing and ready to try new behaviors in order to make you Click.

Training Useful Location Behaviors
Once you have trained a targeting behavior, you can use it to teach your guide to show you a variety of specific destinations in addition to empty chairs; such as locating pedestrian walk buttons, your hotel room door, elevator buttons, escalators to mention just a few. Any destination you desire your guide dog find for you can be trained very powerfully and quickly via Clicker techniques.

In the workshop we used a hand targeting behavior as the foundation for use in training other location behaviors. Another method would be to teach your dog to touch a small physical target with a bell on it. This would be a small item the size of a credit card that you attach a small bell to. The bell is your cue that the dog touched the target and your cue to Click. A physical target can be effective to place on different items you desire teaching your dog to target but they require you have them with you to train that behavior and there is a way to attach them to your goal target. Just as in teaching the hand target, you would start the training by holding the target in front of your dog and Clicking the initial curious sniff that makes the bell sound.

Each targeting method works well; it is your choice as to which one appeals to you. It is also fine to teach your guide dog both as long as you train different verbal cues for each one. Once verbal cue would mean to touch your outstretched hand and the other would mean to go touch the physical target prop you have trained the behavior with.

A common way you will apply Clicker training will be to teach targeting of obstacles you want to find, whereas obstacles are normally things your guide dog avoids for your safety.

Even targeting behaviors your guide already knows can be strengthened by using the Clicker at the moment they reach the target. For instance, up curbs or ramps at intersections are targets your dog is trained to seek out. Complex intersections can be introduced to the dog by teaching the up curb (destination side) of a crossing as a Clicker trained target.

All these Clicker trained targeting behaviors are best taught by Back Chaining, which are the same techniques you applied to introduce locating empty chairs during the workshop.

Back Chaining
Let’s review Back Chaining, as it’s the method you will be using to Clicker train targeting behaviors to your guide. Back Chaining means to start training the dog at the end goal target (think of it as the finish line), and progressively move further away from it as the dog demonstrates the desire to get to that target.

Any anticipation your dog shows to move towards the target, you allow the dog to do. You are looking for your dog’s anticipation to return to the target while you are repositioning for the next repetition. This anticipation tells you that the dog is ready to be moved further away, and that you can begin adding a verbal cue.

By starting very close to the goal target, the dog is only required to move a few inches, then a few feet in order to cause you to Click and reward. Making the initial behavior easy is important, so the dog can experience many successful repetitions as a foundation for the new behavior. As a dog begins to anticipate moving to the target (to make you Click) you can begin to gradually move further away from the target. When you can predict with 95% certainty that your dog will anticipate moving to the target it’s time to add your verbal cue word.

Adding Verbal Cues
When first adding a verbal cue word (Let’s say its “Chair”), strive to say the word AS the dog is actually in motion towards the chair. At this point the word means nothing to the dog. You want the association with the new word to be while they are actually DOING the behavior. If you introduce the word “Chair” before the dog moves towards the target and then the dog just stands there – you have introduced the word meaning “just stand here”. Avoid saying the cue word before the dog begins the behavior until you are very confident the dog will perform it. Waiting for the dog to demonstrate the desire to perform the behavior, before introducing verbal cues, is important in creating strong and consistent responses to verbal cue words.

Keep things simple when choosing a verbal cue word. If you add extra words like “Find the” in front of every new verbal cue, your dog will have difficulty learning the different words. Start with one or two novel words to the dog’s vocabulary that don’t sound similar to words they already know. For instance, we suggest “Chair” because the word “Seat” sounds very much like “Sit”. Even if you plan on adding the words “Find the” in the future – when teaching your dog to locate a chair, only use the single new word “Chair” so they clearly notice it as the cue word. Once your dog demonstrates good response to the new cue word, preceding it with “Find the” will not be confusing.

How far do you increase your Distance from the target when Back Chaining? Observe your dog’s response. If the dog is still anticipating moving to the target after you increased distance, it was an effective progression. If you increased distance and the dog is not readily heading back to the target, you probably moved too far too soon. A general guideline is to only increase the distance away from a new target by a few feet during the first 5 minutes of training. Once you have progressed to around 10 feet away and the dog is readily anticipating getting back to the target, the distance can likely be increased in segments of 5 to 10 paces or yards. The key is to not progress further than the dog will still demonstrate the desire to get back to the target. Your dogs’ behavior is what tells you if they are ready to be moved further away.

So You Have a New Behavior!
Once your dog is responding to a verbal cue consistently, you have established the behavior and can consider ceasing the use of the Clicker. This does not mean you should stop food rewarding the behavior. On the contrary, the behavior is still new and needs many repetitions with food reward to become habit.

Will you always need to use food reward? If not, when do you stop? It’s advisable to continue using food reward for any new response for several weeks, depending upon how often you have your dog find that specific target. (Example: If the dog is only targeting a certain pedestrian walk button one time a week, the handler would want to continue with food rewards for a few months) It also depends on how difficult the targeting behavior is for the dog. It that specific crosswalk button is quite challenging for the dog to locate, the handler should continue ongoing food reward for that specific target to ensure the dog is motivated to go through the extra effort.

Once a behavior is established, it can be maintained using food reward on a variable schedule, applying praise reward 100% of the time. This means you might add a food reward to your Praise every other time your dog performs the behavior. When a behavior that appears easy for the dog to perform becomes habit, food rewards may be gradually omitted. After omitting food reward, if the quality of the response lowers, reapplying food reward for the behavior will raise its quality by giving the dog a reason to work harder.

Be a thinking handler and trainer by constantly assessing your dog’s performance and how your own handling and food rewards are affecting that performance. How is your dog responding? Should I increase my use of food reward?

Instead of thinking about what you DON”T want your guide dog to do, think about what you DO want them to do and how you can go about rewarding a desired behavior to replace behavior you don’t like. Dogs have a hard time understanding the concept of “doing nothing”, instead give that a behavior cue, such as “Sit-Stay”. Whenever you are asking your dog to cease unwanted behavior, give them another job to do that you can reward.

Clicker Use with Behaviors Your Guide Already Knows
Because the Click itself has powerful meaning to your dog, it can also be used to strengthen existing responses. This is called modifying a behavior.

Example: Making a dog’s response to “Sit” more focused with consistently using Click/reward for a few weeks, can help the handler in many ways. They would be improving the response by using the clicker to mark the moment the dog sits, making the dog work harder at performing the “Sit” behavior, in anticipation of getting a higher value reward than Praise alone. If a dog highly values opportunities to respond to “Sit”, imagine how that will assist the handler around distractions when the dog loses focus on work. The Click with food reward would be used long enough for the dog to demonstrate a notable change in its energy and willingness to perform the Sit. At that point, the clicker can be omitted but the handler would continue to consistently use food reward with “Sit” responses to maintain the more willing effort in their dog. The food reward for Sit could progress to a Variable schedule but to maintain the high value to “Sit’, food reward would need to continue.

Here’s Another Example: Your guide certainly knows how to stop at a curb. If your dog has a few specific curbs they occasionally miss, the Clicker is a powerful way to sharpen their focus on stopping at those particular curbs. The Click would come at the moment your dog stops correctly for that curb (at the moment you probed and knew they were correct). That Click, followed by food reward, will immediately draw their attention to that curb check being worth their extra effort. Soon the Clicker could be omitted and food reward continued to maintain the dog’s focus on that particular curb.

What about behaviors you would like to get rid of in your dog? Example: Jumping on or lunging at people they know approaching them. Instead of focusing on the negative behavior, plan how to Clicker train the behavior you want. That means Clicking and rewarding the dog maintaining a Sit or simply staying in Heel with all 4 feet on the ground, as someone approaches. The key is to reward before the dog actually jumps or lunges so you are marking the desired behavior. With this example it would be best to have an assistant help you so you can be more in control of the situation when introducing the Clicker to this scenario. You would first have the person approach just close enough that the dogs’ emotions begin to rise but not so close that the dog begins to jump or lunge. Apply several Click/Reward repetitions then have the person retreat and approach again. Gradually have them approach closer while continuing to reward the absence of jumping or lunging. Your job would be to decide what the alternative behavior is you are going to reward and make it a highly valued behavior for your dog to perform. If approaching people gets your dog very excited, that means they are a highly valued reward. Your job is to apply so many Click/Rewards that your dog begins to see more value in staying with you when people approach. When this scenario is effectively trained, a dog will actually begin to be cued to behave when they see someone approaching. Once the dog is responding well, the Clicker can be omitted but food reward will likely be ongoing in order to maintain a higher value in behaving than in emotionally reacting to approaching people.

Clicker Training focuses on and rewards desired behavior, striving to avoid mistakes. Think of it as fixing negative behaviors by training an alternative behavior the dog learns to crave performing. In this example you are creating a higher value to the dog to keep all 4 feet on the floor over whatever enjoyment they previously got from jumping and lunging on people.

General Tips about Clicker Training

  1. Keep practice sessions short. Much more is learned in three 5 minute sessions that have some break time between them than in a solid 30 minutes of boring repetition. Your goal is to end a training session while your dog is still motivated and interested in learning the new behavior.
  2. The results of clicker training are directly related to the value the dog sees in the reward being used. Some dogs that just ate a meal will not be as enthusiastic about getting food reward as they would if worked before their regular meal. Your dogs’ enthusiasm is your barometer. For some individual dogs this means using a higher value reward than dry kibble. When choosing a higher value food reward, only use small pieces that the dog can eat quickly, products that will not crumble (resulting in pieces falling on the ground), and a product that is not messy for you to deal with.
  3. If your dog does not respond to a new verbal cue, it is not disobeying; your dog just hasn't learned the cue yet and you probably added the cue too soon. Gain more successful repetitions of the behavior that you can Click, without the verbal cue, to develop a more predictable response from your dog. Once the behavior is predictable, then begin adding the cue
  4. When first training a new behavior, remember that working in less distracting environments can help the dog be more successful, allowing more repetitions as a foundation for the behavior.
  5. If you are not making progress in marking a particular behavior, you are likely Clicking too late. Accurate timing is important to precisely tell the dog what you want. Have someone else observe you to give you feedback, and perhaps assist by clicking for you a few times.
  6. Clicking your dog while they are actively guiding you, in motion, in harness can be tricky to time well and it’s difficult to know what the dog interprets the Click is for. Imagine you are walking along the sidewalk, being guided by your dog and you click. What was the click for? The crack in the sidewalk, the glance your dog gave a pedestrian, the slight detour off the line of travel your dog just made? So many possibilities could be present that a guide dog handler wouldn’t be aware of. Also, keep in mind that the Click means the exercise is over and here comes food reward. Clicking in motion will cause the dog to immediately stop for that reward, adding to the challenge of using Clicks in motion. Targeting behaviors all involve guiding but the actual behavior is performed by the dog after they have stopped at the target, making it clear to both dog and handler what the Click is for. * Focus on becoming an adept Clicker trainer for behaviors where the dog is stationary, meaning your dog is not actively guiding you during the Click.

We hope that your GDB Class Clicker Training Program has helped you realize the power and the benefit of this communication tool for guide dog work. We anticipate expanding our student and graduate instruction in Clicker Training and look forward to increasing instruction in these techniques.

Good Guiding and Happy Clicking!

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