Simone Fasel workshops

Phoebe and I spent the weekend with Simone Fasel, who taught two workshop days on “Keep Calm!” (Saturday) and “Advanced Clicker Training” (Sunday) at Nicole’s training facility in beautiful Puchberg.

It was two nice and inspiring, relaxed days.  I was looking forward to working Phoebe in a supportive group environment.


Keep Calm

Keep Calm was about teaching high-strung dogs to relax. Phoebe can get quite over-aroused when there are toys, high-value treats and clickers present. She would happily work for cardboard, sometimes gets so excited that she can’t think straight and you have to count your fingers after feeding a treat, and she has a hard time taking breaks once she’s in the training zone.

The ideas Simone presented were not new (look at that, conditioning a relaxation mat and combining it with a certain scent, teaching dogs to wait at barriers, clicking relaxed body cues, Karen Overall’s protocol for relaxation). However, she mentioned some interesting studies I hadn’t heard about that backed up these approaches, and it was helpful to get her feedback as we were working through the exercises. I also appreciated her perspective on “fake” relaxation: if I click Phoebe’s tail for wagging more and more slowly, and her hip for moving to the side, she’s doing a trick rather than actually relaxing. However, the body still responds accordingly – and this will eventually have the effect of calming her down.

It was also reassuring to hear that Simone agreed with what I generally do when Phoebe needs to relax in an exciting environment: I keep my rate of reinforcement high, and only gradually lower it, setting her up for success. I have been criticised for this approach, and this is also the reason we stopped agility shortly after starting it: I clicked her for being calm whenever it wasn’t her turn, and was told to not do that but just tether her to the fence and ignore her. However, teaching Phoebe to jump into the leash and bark at the fence until it’s her turn again is the last thing I want – and this is, unfortunately, only too common in the agility community.

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Calm (and tired) doggies in the end of day 1.

Advanced Clicker Training

The advanced clicker training day was particularly inspiring. There are numerous clicker trainers I admire for their trick training skills and their approaches to shaping – and everyone is slightly different, which is the most interesting part of all. I’ve done my last shaping workshops with Sue Ailsby, Donna Hill and Deb Jones via the FDSA. I’m particularly a fan of the Sue Ailsby way, which emphasizes splitting a lot and really teaches a dog to problem-solve independently. Compared to Simone Fasel, Sue is a free shaping purist.

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Verena teaches walking figure 8-s around two cones.

Simone’s shaping sessions are even shorter than the ones of most other trainers – she recommends 5 treats per session, or 30 seconds. Also, Simone does not increase criteria within one session. If you took pictures of every iteration within one session, Simone’s pictures would ideally look exactly the same.

Sue and many others (me included) train slightly longer (up to 1 or 2 minutes, or up to 30 treats), and may increase criteria within one session – first click for 1 step, then 2 steps etc. Our pictures, put together, would ideally look like the pictures in a thumb-flip book.

I don’t know if one of these methods is actually superior to the other, or if the best method to choose depends on your and your animal’s particular teaching/learning style. In either case, I enjoyed learning about Simone’s methods and her reasons for preferring it. Her explanations always made sense or were backed up by studies.

Another intriguing difference between Simone’s method and other methods is that Simone recommends not shaping more than one behavior with one single prop until the first behavior is really strong and on cue. For example, she would not shape going around a chair, and in the next session (or even on the next day) shape crawling under the same chair. This, she argues, will lead to confusion and frustration in the animal.

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Can we please keep working? 

Sue’s approach to shaping, on the other hand, is all about watching out for changing criteria. When working with Sue, the animal learns to answer the question, “What gets reinforced right now?” – The animal even learns that the goal behavior might change within one session. Watching Sue’s dogs work this way, and other dogs (including the easily frustrated Phoebe) follow in her footsteps, I don’t agree with Simone that this is necessarily frustrating. As long as your timing is good and you keep the RoR high, it seems to be okay to change the target behavior even within one single session. However, I also see Simone’s point, and I agree that if you lump during the change of criteria, there is a big chance the animal will end up frustrated. Maybe it really is a question of personal philosophy which approach you prefer? Well, that is, until someone does an experimental study on which method is (A) more efficient in teaching an animal a particular behavior and (B) more effective in teaching an animal general creativity and problem-solving skills.

Another interesting thing Simone introduced was to have a different marker for food and toy rewards. So far, I’ve used the same marker and surprised the animal with the reward that was coming. Since toys are of higher value to Phoebe, I assumed that this would work in my favor – she never knew when there would be the fun toy surprise. I used to hypothesize that by means of intermittently reinforcing with a toy, I’d get the strongest possible  marker, just like intermittent schedules of reinforcement (think: slot machine) build the strongest behaviors (think: gambling addiction).

Simone, on the other hand, says the same marker should consistently lead to the same reinforcer: when an animal is expecting reinforcer A upon hearing the click, but receives reinforcer B (which is also coveted), the reinforcer becomes weaker. Disappointing expectations, according to Simone, will always weaken your reinforcer, even if the reinforcer the animal receives is similar in value to the reinforcer she expected. This is interesting, and I’ll have to research it some more to see if I want to start differentiating between a marker announcing a treat and a marker announcing a toy.

Simone also suggested using distinct markers for active and calm behaviors. The excitement of the activity gets built into the reinforcer, and when you work on relaxation, it makes sense to use a different marker than when you work on jumps.


Explaining details about the target cup exercise.

Carina asked another interesting question about different markers. She wanted to know whether it made sense to use different markers for all of her dogs. A little while ago, I had asked the same question on the Clicker Solutions list, and was surprised to find that many people did not tend to use different markers or different clickers for different dogs. Simone definitely thinks that different markers are a good idea, because even if dog A is not paying attention to dog B being clicked – even if dog A knows it’s not her turn! -, the neural connections in dog A’s brain will still get weakened by “her” marker sounding in the background without being followed by a reinforcer.

This is particularly interesting now, since Tom gets his puppy next weekend, and I get to help train him! Yey! So I need a marker for Hadley. Since Phoebe and I usually work with the iClick, Hadley will get a box clicker. Phoebe’s marker word is Yes!, and Hadley will get his own word; maybe Top!, which used to be Pirate’s marker word.

While Simone is a big fan of shaping, she is not a fan of (pure) luring which, in her opinion, mainly teaches dogs to be passive and don’t switch off their brains. It was nice to hear this; I also love shaping best – even if sometimes, luring a simple behavior would be faster than shaping it. Still, I don’t think we can generalize that luring always leads to passive dogs. Emily Larlham is a good example of someone who uses lots of luring and has very creative dogs at the same time.

Another topic that was mentioned was the importance of reducing the latency between marker and reinforcer as much as possible. It is till commonly assumed that the click bridges the time between behavior and primary reinforcer, eliminating the need to feed really fast. However, Simone pointed out that this is not the case – you will still need to reinforce really fast. Just as you should ideally mark at the exact moment the dog performs the behavior, you should ideally deliver the treat no more than 0.5 seconds later – and you definitely shouldn’t take more than 1 second. This makes sense to me, but I’d still like to further look into it – especially since the Alexandra Kurland translation I’m currently working on makes an equally convincing case for something different: according to Alex, you have to promptly initiate the delivery of the reinforcer after the click; however, the way you deliver the treat itself can be slow. That is to say, Alex would take a treat out of her treat pouch within those 0.5 seconds, but then take her time giving it to her horse – according to her, the knowledge that the reinforcer is actually coming (hand into treat pouch) is essential for keeping up the strength of the neural connections, while the time between starting and finishing the treat delivery is not.

We also spent some time working on stimulus control and cue discrimination. It was pretty impressive to see a dog hear the difference between “Pfötli” (Swiss German for raise your paw) and “Bötli” (Swiss German for a small boat) – the two words sound almost the same. However, the dog only performed the behavior upon the correct cue (“Pfötli”). Simone pointed out that stimulus control leads to a dog who works more calmly and is less excited. Dogs who have good stimulus control show very similar working styles, no matter whether they tend to be calm or lively in general. Cue discrimination, on the other hand, leads to a dog who is extremely attentive and a concentrated worker. Phoebe and I will have to work on that some more! It’s good to be reminded of these things sometimes.

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Finley pays attention during the cue discrimination exercise.


Phoebe makes new friends during lunch break.

Thank you, Simone, for an inspiring training weekend!

Phoebe’s retrieve journey and the backchaining of complex behaviors

Some dogs are “instinctually” good at certain behaviors, and other dogs are not. For example, water dogs tend to be untiring and talented swimmers, herding breeds tend to have the proverbial herding instinct, and retrievers are, well, usually “natural” retrievers. Phoebe has many talents, but she is not a natural retriever.

I have been working on teaching Phoebe to retrieve to hand for a while now, and I was thrilled when, after almost six weeks of working on this behavior, I got her to put a piece of garden hose in my hand when I was sitting on the balcony steps in my living room. However, that Phoebe was able to put this specific object into my hand in this specific location while I was sitting did not mean that she had learned to put any object into my hand in any location, no matter what body position I assumed. Her learning experience only applied to this one behavior. She had acquired the behavior, but not generalized it yet.

Pamela Reid distinguishes four stages of learning: acquisition, fluency, generalization, and maintenance. At the point when Phoebe was able to put the hose into my hand after four weeks of training, she had mastered the first stage: acquisition. She wasn’t fluent in it yet – i.e. she still had to deliberately think about what she was doing -, and she hadn’t generalized it to all objects, all locations, and all body positions yet. For a dog who isn’t a natural retriever, retrieving to hand is a fairly complex behavior chain that can take quite some time to perfect. Even if I we split lit into very broad junks, the retrieve chain still consists of at least 4 links: walk towards object, pick up object, carry object towards handler, deliver object to handler’s hand.

However, the more times we explain a certain behavior in a new location, or in a new body position, or involving a new object, the faster our explanations will go, and at some point, the animal will generalize the behavior to all objects, all body positions, and all locations. However, depending on the dog and the task, this may take either only a few repetitions and little time or lots of repetitions and lots of time.

Since my goal is to have Phoebe retrieve anything in any location and no matter what body position I assume, I keep working on her retrieve to hand. I use shaping and backchaining in order to teach a retrieve, a time-tested approach to this behavior used by positive reinforcement trainers all over the world. Shaping is the reinforcement (in our case, click and treat) of successive approximations to the target behavior. We start small and gradually increase criteria, always surfing the extinction burst: we need to raise criteria slowly enough to set the animal up for success, but also fast enough to keep her from getting bored. Shaping is my favorite game, because it requires creativity, strategy, and patience on the trainer’s part, and thinking and creativity on the animal’s part, and it is a training approach that feels most like having a conversation with the animal: the animal asks a question, and we answer – either by means of a click (Yes!) or by not reacting (Try something else!). Sue Ailsby, one of my favorite trainers, says that shaping makes you recognize the unicorn in your dog: no two dogs are exactly alike; every dog you shape will have a different conversation with you … and this is the beauty of it. Another more pragmatic reason I love shaping is that 5 minutes of shaping tire Phoebe out as much as an hour-long walk.

If you have never shaped an animal, think of the children’s game of “hot or cold”: one person hides an object, and the other person moves through the room looking for it. The person who hid the object informs the seeker with “cold”, “warmer”, “warm”, “hot” etc. that he gets closer to or further away from the object in question. In shaping, the dog’s task is to figure out what we want her to do. An experienced shaper will offer all kinds of behaviors and make it easy for us to find something clickworthy. If our target behavior is something the animal is not likely to do by itself, we start with successive approximations – that is to say, we click for anything remotely resembling the target behavior, and then gradually narrow down our criteria. For example, in Phoebe’s retrieve, I started with the last behavior in the chain – the shared hold of an object – and shaped this behavior first. I presented a novel object in my outstretched hand. As Phoebe moved closer to sniff it, I’d click and reinforce her. Then, I’d wait for her to offer a nose-touch of the object. Next, I waited for ever-so-slightly touching the object with her teeth. Next, for putting her mouth around the object. Then, I built duration on the shared hold – in 0.5 second increments, I increased the time she had to keep her mouth locked around the object I was holding with her, playing 300-peck-pigeons (or, as known in Sue Ailsby circles, chutes and ladders). This way, I shaped a shared hold.

Next, I moved on to the last-but-one link in the retrieve chain. But before I go into details about this, let me explain to you why we are backchaining to begin with. Let’s start at the beginning. A behavior chain – such as the retrieve – is a number of behaviors that are performed in a certain sequence. Each behavior cues the respective next behavior, and is reinforced by it. Only in the very end, upon completing the chain, does the animal receive a primary reinforcer. In dog training, the primary reinforcer in the end of the chain is usually a treat.

I said that the retrieve is not one single behavior, but rather a behavior chain consisting of at least 4 links: walk towards object, pick up object, carry object to handler, deliver object to handler’s hand. I have explained the retrieve behavior to a number of dogs. Some of them needed only those 4 links to understand what I meant, others didn’t need an explanation at all, and yet others – among them, Phoebe has been the most challenging – need many, many more links. You always start the same way – at the last link in the chain – and then feel my way towards the beginning. Depending on the dog’s reactions I’ll arrive there within only a few sessions, or within lots of sessions.

When teaching a behavior chain, the commonsense approach is to start with the first link in the behavior (e.g. throwing the dumbbell) and work towards the last (e.g. shared hold of the dumbbell). However it turns out that the commonsense approach is not the smartest one. Behaviors are performed more reliably and are more stress-resistant if they are taught beginning with the last link in the chain. Let’s see: when we train with positive reinforcement, a behavior chain ends with a primary reinforcer. This is the goal; it is what the animal is working towards. The more often a behavior gets reinforced, the stronger it becomes. The stronger the reinforcement history of a behavior, the more likely the animal is to perform this very behavior. In fact, a behavior that has been taught by means of positive reinforcement will itself turn into a reinforcer. You have, so to speak, charged it with lots of positive reinforcement, and now it can in turn reinforce other behaviors. (This, of course, only applies if you train with positive reinforcement! A behavior taught by means of positive punishment will not acquire reinforcing qualities.) If we start with the last link in a behavior chain, this will eventually be the part of the chain the animal knows best – it will be the part that has been reinforced most often. Think of the dumbbell retrieve again: 1 walk towards object, 2 pick up object, 3 carry object to handler, 4 put object in handler’s hand.

If we start with the last link, our reinforcement history looks like this:

4 – primary reinforcer (PR)

3 – 4 – PR

2 – 3 – 4- PR

1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – PR

In this simplified backckchaining example, the fourth behavior (put object in handler’s hand) has been reinforced 4 times, while walking towards the object has only been reinforced once. The last link in the behavior (put object in handler’s hand) is the strongest link in the chain, because it has the strongest reinforcement history. It reinforces the link that comes before it. When it comes to behavior chains, we perform best when we are working towards something we know well – in this case, towards a shared hold. If we start with what we know well, but work towards something we are less sure about, we perform not es good – especially under stress. Susan M. Schneider uses an example most of us will have experienced ourselves in primary school: learning poems by heart, the nightmare of many schoolchildren. Even though the laws of backchaining have been well-known among behaviorists for a long time, they still have not made it into our schools – at least, they hadn’t made it to the classroom when I was in primary school: parents and teachers usually applied the commonsensical approach, telling children to start learning a poem from beginning to end. In the case of the retrieve, the reinforcement history of forward chaining would look like this:

1 – PR

1 – 2 PR

1 – 2 – 3 – PR

1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – PR

In this example, the first link in the chain (walk towards object) has been reinforced 4 times and is the strongest link in the chain with the most reinforcing qualities of all the links. However, since there is no behavior to precede it, its reinforcement power is wasted. The last link in the chain (deliver object to hand) has only been reinforced once, and has the least reinforcing qualities, because it is least well known.

In the case of the schoolchild learning a poem, the common approach is to start with the first line, rinse and repeat until you know it by heart, then first and second line, rinse and repeat until you know it by heart, then first, second and third line and so on. Let’s assume you want to learn Robert Frost’s The Road not Taken by heart and present it in front of your school class. You are nervous about speaking in public, and you don’t like to stand in front of the class with everyone staring at you. You could either start learning in the commonsense way – with the first line:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.

And sorry I could not travel both

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth […].

By the time you get to the end of the first stanza, you have repeated the first line 5 times, the second line 4 times, the third line 3 times, the fourth line 2 times and the 5th line once. Which line do you know best? The first one, of course. When, during your classroom performance, will you have the most energy? In the beginning. So what should you start with – the part you know best, or the part you know least? The part you know least. You are most likely to make it to the end of the poem without stumbling over Frost’s iambic tetrameters if you work towards what you know best, not what you know least. As you spend your energy, you get to well-known terrain.

Ideally, then, you wouldn’t start learning at the beginning, but with the very last line of the last stanza:

And that has made all the difference.

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Try it yourself: pick two poems of equal length. Learn one from beginning to end, and one from end to beginning. Which way do you need less repetitions until you are able to fluently recite it?

This is Sam, a Weimaraner with no previous retrieve training. He learned to retrieve a beer can to hand in less than 10 2-minute sessions.

Phoebe, on the other hand, learned to retrieve her first object to hand in the course of six weeks, and in order for her to be successful, her individual sessions, spread out over the course of the day, needed to be 6 treats short rather than 2 minutes long. She needed to take a day off retrieve training every once in a while, and I needed to mix in other behaviors with the retrieve session in order to keep setting her up for success. In terms of shaping complex behaviors, Phoebe has been one of the most challenging dogs I have worked with. This also makes her one of the best teachers I’ve ever had: she has me to be a micro-splitter. Time and again, she lets me know that the slices of criteria I’ve come up with in my training plans are too big for her. Or that the training sessions are too long for her. Or that my mood is not calm and happy enough for her to be able to focus rather than worry. She has taught me to write training plans rather than wing it, and the importance of filming myself so I can then analyze the video and recognize the split second when things started going wrong, or what initiated her lightbulb moments. Phoebe also taught me how to work with dogs who aer extremly sensitive to my own body language, and how to adapt my own body language to help her become just a tiny little bit pushier rather than always being polite and keeping her distance. Anyways, back to the retrieve. After six weeks, Phoebe could do this and made me a very proud Poodle mama:

Here’s the 17 individual behaviors I had to split the hose retrieve chain into in the acquisition stage. Lumpier shaping approaches did not work for Phoebe:

  1. Sniff hose.
  2. Mouth hose.
  3. Mouth hose slightly longer.
  4. Introduce cue “Take it!”
  5. Get duration on the shared hold. – Fail. Even increasing duration in split seconds and playing the Chutes & Ladders game did not work. Get creative:

5.1 Teach chin target to open hand:

5.2 Get duration on the chin target.

5.3. Introduce cue “Chin!”

5.4. Combine Take it and Chin.

5.5 Get duration on the shared hold that resulted from this combination. – Success!

  1. Introduce cue “Halt fest!” (“Hold on to it!”)
  2. Lower the hose closer to the ground in 2-cm-increments and have Phoebe lift it together with me.
  3. Lower the hose closer to the ground in 2-cm-increments, let her lift it on her own and click after I grabbed it again.
  4. Lower the hose closer to the ground in 2-cm-increments, let her lift it on her own and then chin-target my hand while holding on to it.
  5. Gradually build duration on the shared hold after the lift.
  6. Eventually put the hose to the floor and have her lift it – fail: Phoebe would give up because getting her lower jar around it was too hard when the hose was on the ground. Be creative:

11.1: Put cardboard circles on both ends of the hose so it gets dumbbell-shaped and easier to lift off the floor. (Easier to put mouth around.) – Success!

  1. Tape 9 strips of duct tape on the floor, play chutes & ladders with it: put down on first strip, let her lift it and do a chin target. If successful, put down on second strip, have her lift it and do a chin target. If successful, put down on third strip, have her lift it and do a chin target. If not successful, return to strip one and start from scratch. (We returned to strip one lots of times.)

We run into problems here, since Phoebe did not know that it was possible to walk while holding the object. She’d lift it off the floor alright, but then stand there and look at me without bringing it. – Be creative, do some blending!

12.1 Take turns having her lift the object and put it into my hand from right in front of me, throwing the treat away from me and having her run towards me to do a chin target. Put object on strip no. 2, have her lift and put it in my hand. Throw treat away from me and have her run towards me in order to do a chin target. That way, I eventually got the first steps without dropping the object, followed by a chin target while holding the object. Success!

  1. Reduce distance. Place the object on the floor in different angles from me so she had to turn in order to bring it back to me.
  2. Start rolling the object a short distance with the help of the cardboard circles.
  3. Stop rolling; reduce the size of the cardboard circles so picking the object up got gradually harder, until she could lift it up without the circles that would help her get her lower jar under it.
  4. Introduce rolling again, this time without the circles.
  5. Introduce the first little object throws.
  6. Gradually build distance while throwing, have her run after it and bring it back to me.

Since achieving our first decent retrieve to hand with the help, inspiration and encouragement of the wonderful Donna Hill, I have worked on fluency and generalization, the next two stages of learning according to Pam Reid. The nice thing is that once she had the hose retrieve down in one position, I started my explanations from scratch in new locations and new body positions, but she got there much faster. By now, Phoebe can pick up and hand me the hose in the corridor and carry it up stairs (!) to hand to me, sitting on the top stair. She can also pick up the hose and hand it to me on two different outside locations while I’m sitting – both on pavement. And she can pick up the hose and hand it to me while I am standing on grass. However, we haven’t built distance in these new locations yet.

We have also started working on the next object – a rolled-up magazine. I chose this object next because I needed a novel object for a train-off with Tom. He wondered whether he could come up with a faster and more generalizable approach to teach the retrieve of a novel object. So we decided to test it. We would each use our own approaches to teach the retrieve of at least one novel object. Our rules excluded physical manipulation (such as holding the dog’s mouth shut or shoving an object into her mouth), harsh words and other types of positive punishment. Everything else was allowed, and how long, how often and with the help of what objects we trained was up to us. The person who first got Phoebe to retrieve a novel object to hand 4 out of 5 times from 1.5 meters distance would win.

This is not perfect yet (I still need to work on grabbing the magazine at different angles without dropping it), but I think it qualifies – it was all about getting there first, after all.

And some pretty awesome background reading:

Ailsby, Sue. Training Levels

Chance, Paul: Learning & Behavior

Hill, Donna: The Elusive Hand-Delivered Retrieve. (FDSA class & lecture notes)

Reid, Pamela J.: Excel-Erated Learning

Schneider, Susan M.: The Science of Consequences

Clicker Galga

My little foster Galga Luz loves to learn! Here’s a short video of her practicing her Sit! on cue. She’s also taken a trial agility lesson and done great with the few jumps we tried together, and recently, I’ve been working on her lifting her front paws on cue. Whoever ends up adopting Luz will have tons of fun training with her!

Refining our training skills with Emily Larlham

You know how when you are a child, people sometimes ask you what you want to be when you grow up? Today, even though I’m already 28, I feel like saying I want to be Emily Larlham when I grow up. Here is 7 reasons why.

 1. When I walked into the room, she kneeled down and asked: “Is this Phoebe?” It’s nice to know someone has actually read and remembered the participating dog introduction sheets! And it’s nice to be greeted this way. Emily did this with all the arriving dogs and their people; everyone felt  welcome and appreciated. 

2. Emily tried to answer every question (time-frame and topic permitting), and she took every question seriously. 

3. Emily didn’t put herself on a pedestal and claim to have the one and only way to deal with dogs, just a way she has found works well and is happy to share.

4. Emily didn’t reprimand people who didn’t use clickers. There were only about two non-clicker people in the seminar, and Emily respected their choice to use a marker word instead of a click.

5. Emily respected that different trainers make different choices. She didn’t attack people who used a collar instead of a harness; rather, she mentioned the advantages a harness has over a collar – without directly addressing or criticizing anyone.

6. Emily excused herself when she forgot to take breaks for her translator to catch up, or when she got sidetracked or carried away with a topic. She feels very real, and that makes her a likeable teacher. 

7. Emily didn’t only not use no-reward markers with dogs, she didn’t use them with people either. This is surprisingly uncommon even among positive dog trainers.

So this was a slightly different review from what I normally do! Thank you, Emily Larlham, and thank you, Martina Lazzarini, for the great organization! I loved the location (Forte Mezzacapo, and old military fortress), the food (yummy Lebanese catering), and I loved all the wonderful dogs and their people I got to know this weekend. 

And now, let’s take a look at some of the topics we covered and games we played at the seminar!

The seminar was about refining our training skills. We didn’t cover beginning clicker stuff, but talked a lot about how to use variety and unpredictability in our favor, and about the importance of being precise with timing, clicks, and treat delivery.

However, for anyone who isn’t familiar with Emily Larlham’s work and her training philosophy, here’s a link to her Progressive Reinforcement Manifesto

Improving your training skills

Get rid of superstitions!

A superstition is the “irrational belief that an object, action, or circumstance not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome” ( For example, in the TV drama Grey’s Anatomy, Burke doesn’t want to operate without his lucky surgical cap. That’s a superstition. 

When it comes to our dogs, superstitions might be that it’s not the marker that predicts the treat (and ends the behavior), but a certain movement or body posture of the handler. In order to check our dog’s superstitions, we cued Eye Contact and then performed possible superstitions: move clicker hand (without clicking), reach in pocket or bait bag etc. Does the dog stop her eye contact (superstition), or keep holding our gaze (she knows it’s the click that predicts the treat/ends the behavior, nothing else)? Superstitions can be gotten rid of by means of performing these actions before the behavior is over and consciously not reinforcing superstitions.

Why is it useful to get rid of superstitions?

– It increases precision and makes for crystal-clear training.
– If you are working on behavior modification by means of classical counter-conditioning, it’s important that your dog knows the appearance of his trigger (e.g. a strange dog) predicts his treat, not your hand moving into the bait bag! 

Reinforcement placement: the art of throwing treats


Lots of fun and lots of candy: we tested our treat-throwing skills with candy: if we caught the piece of candy, we ate it. If it hit the floor … obviously, we wouldn’t eat it, since the the military fortress’ floor wasn’t all that clean. We became aware that badly thrown treats lead to frustration – frustration we should spare our dogs.


We talked about how to deliver our reinforcement and that being unpredictable keeps training interesting for our dogs. In the picture, Emily demonstrates an exciting way of delivery: run over and treat your dog.

Vary your reinforcement delivery

1. Vary where the reinforcement is coming from (left pocket, right pocket, bowl, table, manners minder …)
2. Vary what is coming (have different types of treats and toys, verbal praise, touch etc.). Depending on what you’re training, it may be a good idea to either use a treat that bounces or rolls once it hits the floor, or one that sticks to the floor (e.g. a piece of deli meat).
3. Vary how you deliver the treat (throw excitedly, slowly put on ground, throw underhand or overhand, hand-feed, teach your dog to catch the treat …)

Placement effects training

Another important factor that is easy to overlook is that it is not only the click that changes behavior/a particular position (e.g. perfect heel position), but also the placement of the treat: Emily’s tip about teaching behaviors such as heeling is to feed in the position where you want the dog’s head to be.

We also did a practical exercise to become aware of the placement of the treat: teaching walking around a person or an object using a food lure. I haven’t worked much with lures since I’ve been using a clicker, so this was interesting for me, even though Phoebe was already quite tired at that point. 



Teaching circling a person (or object) using luring:

Lure around you or the object of choice, click, lead the lure hand a little further along the path you want the dog to follow and then drop the treat so the dog has to keep walking to the treat after the click. This is to avoid your dog taking a few steps, than stopping to eat.

If teaching to walk around you, change treats from one hand to the other behind your back. It’s hard to do this when at the same time holding the clicker!

Practice your timing!

We all know that good timing (of the click or marker word) makes for good training. We did a practice round with videos of Emily and her dogs Splash and Kiko, clicking the very instant the dog offered a certain behavior, e.g. Kiko putting the first paw on Emily’s foot.

Using videos to practice or brush up your timing is always a good idea. Before I used a clicker on a dog for the first time, I chose a certain action on a TV show (Hector de la Vega dipping his head to the right in El Internado) and tried to click it every time. Another exercise I did before practicing on a dog was walking around Vienna clicking the instant I spotted a red car etc.

Offering: a behavior strengthening creativity and confidence


Offering is an important behavior in and of itself – and an integral part of clicker training. In this picture, Emily gets Giotto to offer behavior on his own. She cues and reinforces a behavior he knows several times, and then lets him keep offering it on his own.

“Try something new!”, or 101 things to do without a box


You’re probably familiar with the 101 Things To Do With A Box game. Emily introduced a similar idea: “Try something new!” – an Offering game without a box.

In order to teach the game, every tiny and slightly different movement of the dog is clicked – until he figures out that this game is all about creativity! Like 101 Things To Do With A Box, 101 Things To Do Without A Box furthers creativity and confidence in the dog and strengthens his Offering skills.


Elliot is ready to offer anything. Play bow, lift right front paw, lift left front paw, cross paws, dip Jasmin with his paw.


Ana’s dog already knows the “Try Something New!” game and has a good time getting creative.

Adding the cue

Most clicker trainers will tell you to only add the cue when the behavior is rock-solid. This is for two reasons:

1. It stresses the difference to traditional training, where commands are introduced before the dog knows what we want from him (e.g. saying “Sit!” and at the same time pushing the dog’s butt floorwards),

2. Is allows the dog concentrate on the behavior, and nothing but the behavior, first. This is to avoid the cue being nothing but “white noise” in the background, while it’s still meaningless to the dog.

Emily, however, adds cues rather quickly: once the dog knows what she wants in this particular training session, she’s ready to add the cue, even if this means he might not get it right 100% of the time in the beginning. She argues that, when you add the cue late, you don’t actually add the cue but rather change the cue, because you already have a conditioned cue either way: the context (e.g. a certain place in the room). 

With Phoebe, I have been working with late cues so far: I used to wait until the behavior I worked on was fluent before I named it. I’ve decided to change my cue-introduction strategy to Emily’s advice, since I have a number of behaviors I haven’t put on cue yet that Phoebe keeps offering all the time. I’ve also realized that when I add the cue late, Phoebe is so used to offering the behavior without a cue that she might offer certain tricks she loves uncued as well: they’ve become quite resistant to extinction, even though I don’t consciously reinforce them when they appear uncued. For example, I’ve been capturing her clapping her teeth, which I think is a hilarious trick. However, she loves it so much that she now claps her teeth all the time – even without my cue, simply because it’s so much fun for her to make that sound with her teeth and I’ve reinforced it with click/treat. She may just jump up from sleep and run around my living room clapping her teeth, and she enjoys mixing it in with other behaviors she already knows well, such as sits. Of course, it usually cracks people up, which further reinforces performing this trick without a cue.

Freebies and calm default behaviors


Pico gets “free treats” for patiently waiting while Martina and Emily are talking. This avoids frustration and at the same time teaches a calm default behavior. 

Emily called these treats freebies; I actually don’t even think of treats for patiently waiting as freebies – after all, a calm default behavior is one of the hardest tasks for many high-energy dogs. 

Phoebe’s main task during this seminar – as during all the seminars she accompanies me to these days – is practicing calmness. She’s a puppy with a lot of puppy energy, and people, dogs and action around her easily distract her. It’s hard for her to choose to remain calm in these situations, and I’m very proud when she does. I make sure to honor this with a flow of mixed treats on a variable reinforcement schedule. This doesn’t only strengthen Phoebe’s calm default behavior, but also my treat throwing skills: yey! 

I believe it’s easy to build drive and work on tricks later in life, but the first and most important part any dog should learn is to relax and remain calm in challenging environments. If you have a solid basis of calm default behaviors, you can take your dog pretty much anywhere, you lower his frustration and stress level in challenging environments, and you teach him to default to a calm behavior (sitting or lying down) rather than jumping and barking on a variable reinforcement schedule or during training breaks.

Have different markers for highly excitable behaviors and calm behaviors

Somehow related to teaching calm default behaviors vs. exciting tricks is Emily’s tip to have different markers for highly excitable behaviors and calm behaviors. This is because your dog has a conditioned emotional response to certain markers, e.g. the clicker in agility. You don’t want to use an exciting marker for very calm behaviors.

I do this in the following way. I mostly use the clicker for new behaviors and exciting behaviors – things where I want the dog to pay special attention. Another exciting marker I use is an enthusiastic “Suuuuuuper!” (for behaviors that are already on cue and don’t need the clicker anymore), jumping up and flashing my hands (if I want to reinforce my dog while she is at a distance), briefly taking her head in my hands, or  rolling on the floor and letting her jump all over her to show her what an amazing thing she has just done. The click is always followed by a treat or toy, the other markers are only sometimes followed by a treat.

When practicing calm behaviors or reinforcing Phoebe walking calmly next to me or staying calm in an exciting situation, I use a calm voice for saying “Guuuuuuut” (gooooood in German” or “Braves Mädl” (“Good girl!”), or, depending on the situation, slowly move my hand under her chin and scratch it softly.

There was a lot more going on in Venice last weekend – but I’ve got to stop writing and get some for-bread work done! Check out Emily Larlham’s next seminar yourselves! And for starters, browse through her youtube channel.

In any case – here’s a photo of Phoebe and me warming up for recall-with-distractions work (photo by Martina Lazzarini): 


Happy training, everyone, and have a pawesome autumn week!