My Cattle Dog puppy, Ellie Rose, inspired this blog yesterday. I was training her in agility and using both food and toys as a reinforcer. I was clicking and treating for her mastering a difficult and new approximation of a behavior, and using the toy as a reinforcer to get speed and drive out of behaviors she had already learned. She is crazy for the toy, and we were having a grand time playing together after each sequence. Then, by mistake, I clicked her and offered her the toy. She sat down and flat out refused to take it until I gave her a treat, first. Smart girl, she called me out on being sloppy.
When I click, I give my dog a food reward. Every time, without fail, one to one, always. I don’t offer my dog a toy, play, or other reinforcer after I click – I only offer food rewards after the click. Why is that so important? You have to remember that the click is a classically conditioned reinforcer, and to maintain the classically conditioned response you can’t “leave out” or mix up stimuli. OK that’s pretty meaningless to most people, so lets break it down.
The way we “power up” a clicker, is to click, wait half a second, and treat. We do this for many, many repetitions. We are not trying to train our dogs to do anything, we are trying to create a classically conditioned response. What that means is that, eventually, when the dog hears the clicker, he will have an involuntary physiological response to the click. He will begin to relax and drool, (his parasympathetic nervous system will kick in) just as if food were actually present, even if there is no food around. This has huge advantages for a dog trainer. Among other things, it’s a way of reaching in and controlling the way your dog feels – properly conditioned, a clicker makes your dog feel good, whether he wants to or not. Furthermore, it can push your dog back into the “thinking” part of the brain, rather than the limbic or flight or flight part of the brain. This is where you want your dog to be when he’s learning new and complex tasks that require concentration and focus. So, when we say a clicker is “powered up” what we really mean is we have successfully classically conditioned an involuntary physiological response to the clicker.
Now, to maintain that classically conditioned response, you have to pair the food with the click every time. It’s not like training, where you can thin the ratio (gradually give less and less reinforcers) and get a higher response (longer duration and better performance). Training is an intellectual function where the dog makes a choice about how to pursue or avoid consequences. Conditioning is a different animal completely. There are no choices, here, only conditioned involuntary responses – any time you fail to give the food in conjunction with the click, you weaken the conditioning.
So, what about clicking and giving a toy or offering play, or other reinforcers? Sure, you can do it, but you will be weakening your nice conditioned response. Lets think about what we are doing when we play with our dogs – we get his adrenaline pumping, kick him into play/prey drive, and try to rev up his performance. It does not take much to realize that is at odds with the calming, thinking, state that the parasympathetic nervous system invokes when food is present. For me, keeping the dog in the thinking brain is crucial for teaching him things, As a general rule, only after the dog is fluent in any given behavior do I add “stimulating” reinforcers. You can’t classically condition the clicker to invoke two opposing physiological responses so I recommend, if you want to use toys or other reinforcers, use a different marker. I use the word “yessss” for toys and the clicker is reserved for food.
Just a side note – you don’t actually have to give your dog the food each time you click. You can vary the reinforcer and create more drive by sometimes just letting him sniff the food, put his mouth on the food but not have it, give him ten pieces of food, a huge chunk of food, thowing the food, etc. The bottom line it, food has to be involved, somehow.
This is a complicated topic and I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions on this!