I taught Melissa how to sit (along with other cues) by capturing the action of sitting by clicking each time I saw her sit. She understood the clicker game, so fairly quickly began offering to sit in anticipation of getting a reinforcement. I quickly began only to click and reinforce the faster sits. I added the cue word 'sit' as she was in the action of sitting, clicked and treated.
When the sit was on a verbal cue I no longer clicked and treated each time I saw her sitting. There was no longer a need to capture a behavior that was on cue. Eventually she was clicked and treated only when I cued her to do so. This is an important concept of training and especially clicker training. Clicker trained animals (horses, goats, cats and giraffes can all be trained to do behaviors on cue...along with our dogs) begin to offer behavior in anticipation of getting a reinforcement. We need to put the behaviors we are capturing on cue fairly quickly, otherwise our dogs will be offering all sorts of behaviors in anticipation of reinforcement. What fun it is to see a dog focused intently on his owner; the path to learning has been opened. The possibilities are endless!
I practiced sit with Melissa every night before bedtime cookies, we practiced for each meal outdoors. Her sits were prompt. I no longer needed to click/treat for the sit as it was now a learned behavior...in those contexts. Those last 3 words in those contexts is a very important concept in training any animal.
Did Melissa really know what sit meant? We had practiced outside in the yard, we had practiced inside at bedtime. She was sitting the instant she heard the cue to sit. Surely she must know what sit means? But let's take closer look at in what context the behavior was happening. Melissa could sit at meal times, bedtime. She could sit in front of me. But part of dog training is teaching our animals to generalize the behavior. If Melissa truly understood the cue to sit she would be able to perform that behavior in many different places, on either side of me, with me holding packages in my hand, and in the presence of distractions. Once our dogs begin to generalize a few behaviors, generalization for subsequent behaviors comes much quicker. To help Melissa out, I broke our training sessions into tiny segments. Instead of standing directly in front of Melissa when I cued sit, I stood slightly with my body turned to the side (think inches) when she was able to sit promptly, I turned slightly more. Eventually Melissa was at my left side when I cued sit. We then repeated the same steps for the sit cue on my right. Then when I was sitting in a chair.
Could she sit with a toy in my hand? I went back to the beginning stages and helped the line of communication by clicking and treating each time she started to sit while I held a toy. Gradually the toy was over my head ready to be thrown, she sat when cued. The reward was the toy being thrown for her to retrieve, or a game of tug. We practiced with different toys, with me holding different objects such as a bag of groceries. In each of this situations I lowered my criteria by going back a few steps to help her and to keep her interest in the game of learning. If her sit was a bit slower due to her learning to generalize, I would once again go back to clicking and feeding. A slow response can be part of the learning process. As before, I was able to progress quickly to clicking and feeding only the prompt sits.
Melissa was now able to generalize that the cue to sit meant to sit in many different types of situations, and a sit was not dependent on where my body was or what I was holding when I cued her to sit. We practiced with other cues also. She was now getting the concept of generalizing the cue to down and to touch, target her nose to the palm of my hand. A few weeks ago she was standing in water at the lake, waiting for me to throw her bumper. I cued her to sit. And she sat in the water!!! Her reward was for me to throw the bumper.
Wow. I was feeling rather confident, my 10 month old puppy was really making progress in her training and really understood what the cue sit meant. A few days later, she met her dog friends for a hike. I release her from the car and asked her to sit. She was eagerly looking at the other dogs. I repeated 'sit' (yes, even trainers err sometimes and repeat cues....oops.....) thinking surely she must have not heard me. But she continued to look at the other dogs. In that context, Melissa did not know what the cue to sit meant. She was not 'blowing me off', she was not being dominant, she was not being stubborn. She simply was distracted by the presence of the other dogs. We had not trained the cue to sit in that context: after a car ride, arriving at the park, and in the presence of several other dogs. Lots of distractions plus the anticipation of a run in the 156 acre park. We moved a distance away from the distraction of the other dogs, and I then re-cued her to sit. She sat promptly and was then released to go play with her friends.
I wanted her to succeed, I realized that the sight of the other dogs was so exciting to her that she could not focus on me, nor had she totally generalized the cue to sit to every situation. So I helped her out by moving a distance away from the distractions so she could be successful. Our trusting relationship was intact, and she moved up another notch in the concept of generalizing behaviors. Does this mean Melissa will sit the next time she sees her dog friends at a distance? No, it will take several repetitions and consistency on my part for her to understand the concept of truly understanding each and every cue. Gradually we will move closer to distractions and even increase the amount and type of distractions. Think about the sensory overload at a dog show, it is no wonder our unseasoned dogs get unfocused. Help your dog be successful, lower your criteria in distracting situations. Melissa is learning a solid foundation for all future behaviors, she is young, she has lots to learn. I am helping her be successful while maintaining a great working relationship between the two of us.