If you’re a clicker trainer you know that having clear criteria is a must. However this is one area that I see causing grief time after time – even with experienced trainers! If the goal of clicker training is to provide clarity and clear feedback, we need to understand this concept. And what is that concept? I hear you say…
Movement vs end result
Do you think of the cue “sit” to mean “be seated” or “move into a seated position”? The way you define the criteria you’re clicking for makes a huge difference to how your learner understands the behaviour and many people really struggle with this ‘movement’ vs ‘end result’ aspect of setting criteria. Read on if you want to know more!
Why is it so important?
Many people think that asking a dog to do something such as ‘sit’ or ‘down’ relates to the position the dog assumes but this is not quite how it works.
In general, cues (the signals we give to ask the dog to do something) mean ‘do X’, they are associated with behaviours, muscle movements if you like, not the resulting posture of the dog.
“Sit” means “bend your knees and lower your bum until it hits the ground”. “Down” means “lower your body until all of you is on the ground”.
“Bang” means “throw yourself on the floor and then freeze all movement”.
Language is not always our friend
If we think of cues as meaning ‘do X muscle movements’ we can see why many dogs struggle in predictable situations. If your dog is lying down and you ask for “sit”, and that means “bend your knees and lower your bum” well, that’s not going to be so easy if the dog is already lying on the floor. It’s not like he can bend his knees to get his bum any lower! To move from lying down to a sitting position, most dogs need to raise the front end of their body, so asking for “sit” makes little sense and is confusing.
Here’s a video of Breezy doing his distance control position changes. He’s 11 now, so the changes aren’t as clean as they used to be (he’s getting creaky!) but you can clearly see how he has to move in different ways to achieve the same ‘position’, depending on his starting posture.
But my dog understands what I want!
Dogs, being the very bright beings that they are, do eventually work this out; but you will struggle to get a fast, peppy “lift your front end…” from lying down if you insist on using the same verbal cue as you use to ask for a “bend your knees…” when the dog is standing.
I know that many dogs appear to do just fine working out which “sit”, “down” or “stand” we want but…watch the handler very carefully. Almost without exception there will be either a change in verbal inflection, a change in the preceding (name) cue or a subtle body movement – often a flick of the head. The dog is reading those little differences in signaling/cueing to help it differentiate between the different behaviours.
Handler awareness is everything…
Ideally, we have a conscious separate cue for each individual behaviour (set of muscle movements) that we would like the dog to perform. Let’s look at our sit/down/stand behaviours. There are actually SEVEN, yes, SEVEN separate behaviours here:
1) From standing, move into a sit (bend your knees and lower your bum to the ground). If we really wanted to be pedantic, we could split the sit further into a ‘back’ sit (rock your weight backwards as you bend your knees into a sit) or a forward ‘tuck’ sit (move your weight forwards and tuck your bum under you as you bend your knees to sit) but unless you do obedience you’ve probably never even noticed these details!
2) From lying down, move into a sit (lift your front end by pushing up with your front paws).
3) From standing, move into a down (bend all your legs to lower your entire body to the ground in one smooth movement).
4) From sitting, move into a down (lower your front end so all your body is on the ground).
5) From lying down, move into a stand (straighten all your legs to lift your body into a stand in one smooth movement).
6) From sitting, move into a stand (kick your rear end up and out to assume a standing posture).
7) From sitting, move into a stand (walk your front end forward and straighten your back legs until you are standing up).
And I should care… why?
Now, if you’re not going to be doing Rally–O or Obedience this might not seem to matter one jot to you. However, if you understand the concept of cues = behaviours/muscle movements you will find it MUCH easier to think about exactly what it is you want your dog to DO when you give your cue. You will start looking for movements rather than outcomes or postures. This makes all sorts of things easier down the training road.
Things that improve when you start thinking this way:
- Observation skills. You start looking for MOVEMENT, which means you can decide if it is the movement you want, or not.
- Timing of your marker. You will no longer be habitually late 😉
- Clarity. Suddenly your dog isn’t having to process your cues – “this sit or that sit?” so he can respond quickly and be sure he’s correct.
- Shaping. Looking for tiny muscle movements towards the end goal instead focusing on the final posture becomes easier. (E.g. Instead of “sit in the box” we look for “work out how to place your feet, one at a time, in the box and then bend your knees to lower your bum into the box”.)
Hopefully this has explained why changing how you think about training from ‘outcome/final posture’, to ‘behaviour/muscle movements’ is helpful. It is one of those shifts that can take your training to a whole new level!
– Sarah and the Gang
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