Sunday, July 21, 2013

My First Clicker Training Aha Moment

My Wiley Boy
I wasn't an immediate convert to clicker training.  I had trained my dog Rusty using the more "conventional" way and he was such an amazing dog.  We had such a close connection.  When he passed away, I didn't think I'd ever have that again with another dog.  I got Wiley as a puppy a few months after Rusty died.  Wiley was such a handful as a puppy.  I signed up for classes and the instructor happened to use clicker training positive reinforcement methods.  I liked how she taught but I just didn't see how that little clicker made that big a difference.  Wiley was smart and picked up new behaviors quickly and easily.  But the one area we struggled with was walking nicely on a leash.  He pulled unmercifully. 

Walking with Rusty was one of my favorite times.  We would get up before work and go to the beach for a walk or jog.  I don't know if I enjoyed it so much because of the beauty of the beach and getting out in the fresh ocean air or because I just loved how much Rusty enjoyed our walks.  His face just lit up and showed shear joy.  He was such an easy boy to walk or jog with.  I had a stretchy lead rope that I attached to a fanny pack I wore so I could have my hands free.  We were so in sync.  I knew getting a puppy was starting at square one but knowing it in my head was different than knowing it in my heart.  I was still grieving Rusty and having Wiley yanking my arm out of its socket made missing Rusty even worse.  The walks I so enjoyed became a chore.  So many things that I took for granted had become a challenge with raising a new puppy.  I loved my new puppy but he had become another chore and one that I wasn't sure I would get to a point that I would be in sync with like I had been with Rusty.  I enjoyed Wiley and he was a real adorable little fluff ball but he was one tough puppy to train.  He was too smart, stubborn and headstrong.  Three strong traits in a personality that make training tough.  I knew if I had a chance of ever truly enjoying Wiley and having him be a dog I adored, getting him to walk nicely was the key. 

It took several months of not having enjoyable walks that I finally did what you should do as a trainer when you aren't getting the responses you think you should.  I looked in the mirror to see what I was doing.  I was making several mistakes.  The first mistake was that I was trying to go for an enjoyable walk instead of going out to train a skill of walking nicely on a lead.  I was so badly needing and wanting that experience of enjoying my walks that I was imposing it on this puppy that hadn't learned that skill and I was getting frustrated and angry with him when it wasn't his fault.  It was mine because I hadn't taught him yet what he needed to learn.  I was projecting my grief and sadness of losing Rusty on this little puppy. 

The second mistake was a real basic training mistake.  I was using about 4 or 5 different commands to mean the same thing.  I wanted Wiley to learn how to walk at my side and with a slack lead.  To tell him that was what I wanted, I used "heel," "wait," "stop pulling," "whoa," and the most often used word that means nothing, "NO!" 

Dogs have the ability to discriminate.  Wiley is such a smart dog that he knows the difference between right side and left side so if I taught him something on my right, I had to teach him the same thing on my left if that was something I wanted him to know because he saw them as distinctly different things.  Wiley was trying to figure out what I was asking of him but with so many different words, he didn't get that they all meant the same thing.  I knew it but he didn't.  In class, when our instructor told us and showed us how dog were good at discriminating such differences was my "Aha!" moment.  I saw that I was being inconsistent and confusing Wiley.  I put my emotional needs aside to deal with outside training and deal with myself and I worked on becoming consistent in the words I used to tell Wiley what I wanted from him.  And, I pulled out my clicker.  Instead of going out for a walk, we went out for a training session.  If we only went a half a block, that was ok.  If my ultimate goal was to go for nice long walks, then that was what I had to do. 

We went for maybe a block that first training session after my "aha!" moment.  I clicked Wiley for healing and if he pulled too hard, I would either turn and walk the opposite directions away from what Wiley was interested in that he was pulling me towards or I would take three steps backwards away from the object of his interest.  It was a lot of one step forward and three steps back.  But by being really consistent about not rewarding his pulling AND rewarding when he WAS in the correct position, our walking started to improve quickly.  We had stagnated for months with me getting in the car mad and frustrated with a sore arm, but once I realized what I was responsible for in our training, the training began to progress and it progressed rapidly. 

I became a clicker training convert on those first walking successes with Wiley.  I saw how being consistent in what I asked for and clicking for correct behavior engaged Wiley like I had never seen before.  He was so eager to learn and it was almost like I could see the stress leave his body.  I admit, I felt a little badly that I was causing it to be not fun for him either on our walks with my inconsistency.  I had confused him so badly in using so many terms to ask for the same thing that he was frustrated too.  Being an Australian Shepherd, he is a working dog and he wants to do his job.  As I clicked Wiley and cheered him on for doing things right, I felt a shift in my dog and in me too as some of the grief and sadness of missing Rusty was replaced with the joy of seeing this new puppy learning.  I started to enjoy the process of training him more.  The click and reward and seeing Wiley's face light up when he heard the click, transformed our walks into a fun outing even when we went for a block.  Clicker training has provided many Aha moments in my life.  Amazing how a little click can provide so many life lessons.  In my next blog, I'm going to continue with how this Aha moment and clicker training Wiley helped me understand a young boy I was counseling.     

Wiley getting into mischief.  He was walking around the house as if nothing was amiss.

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