The Power of Yes

I watched a TV program the other day about dog training. As is usual with these things, the trail suggested that the show had something new to say, when in fact it was just wrapping up established ideas in a new package. As the wrapping was three different dogs trying to learn new tricks, I was happy to watch it and see what happened.

The idea was to try and teach the dogs how to find a hidden object on command using a training technique called, ‘bridging’. I have not heard it called this before, but I have heard of clicker training, which is basically one example of that method.

The idea is that you use a reward system for training – giving your dog a treat, be it food or a toy, but signifying the correct behaviour before handing over the reward by using a ‘bridge.’ This can be a click from a clicker or even the word, ‘yes.’ The reason this works is because you can use the bridge to let the dog know immediately they display the desired behaviour in less time than it takes to get the reward to them, so it helps the dog connect the behaviour to the feedback before they get the treat.

The three dogs in the program were a tiny chihuahua, a sexy surfing spoodle and a black Labrador called Angus. Remarkably, the chihuahua in her woolly pink coat was really quick to grasp the basics, whereas poor Angus was so food motivated that he just could not get past the smell of chicken to even begin the behaviour that would earn him the reward. I felt for Angus.

In the end, though, after only two weeks’ training all three dogs had managed to learn how to locate their owners’ wallet, keys or phone, even if they may have had to edit down the time it took them. It was impressive. With only very small bursts of daily training, three ‘ordinary’ pets had become tracker dogs.

I tried clicker training with Lucy a few years back, but she was really scared of the noise and so even as I was trying to ‘load’ the clicker by sounding it and the delivering the treat, she looked really distressed and basically as if she would rather be somewhere else, but was trying to do what she thought I wanted. She loves to do tricks and is highly motivated to learn, so I gave up on the method and it has been a while now since I taught her something new.

Archie has been a work in progress from day one. He has learned to sit, shake paw, lie down and turn around. I even managed to ‘catch’ a behaviour and teach him to bark on command, but that is a far as it has gone.

I thought I might revise the bridge technique, using ‘yes’ as the bridge and it seemed to work with him straight away – particularly as every ‘Yes’ led to a snack – and Archie, like Angus, loves a snack. I have used the word ‘yes’ all the time with them, but never that consistently and I have to say that he has cottoned on really quickly. After only a few days, now all I have to do is utter the word, whether it is to him or not and he will appear by my side, ready for a treat.

Now I guess the next trick for me will be to get him to actually follow a command correctly before I say ‘Yes’. Perhaps someone should be using clicker training on me.

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