Myth or Magic?
As clicker training becomes more popular, people are beginning to incorporate this method into obedience and agility training. As a newcomer to clicker training, it took Shirley Frankcom a while to understand how to use it to advantage in agility. The ideas which follow are based on her 'trial and error' experience with the youngest member of her small pack.
Twigs was a stray, a small crossbreed who followed me home one day and moved in. She was about seven or eight months old, and had obviously had no previous training. We started with the basics, and by the time she was ready to begin agility, both of us were hooked on the clicker method.
What the clicker does for the dog is to provide clear information about exactly which action earns a reward. For example, you can reinforce a pause on the contact point, even if you are nowhere near the obstacle.
What it does for the handler is to sharpen up their timing. (How often do you hear handlers praise their dog for getting off the contact?) What you click is what you get. For a bit of light relief, I taught Twigs to wave. A couple of times, I clicked the waving paw just as she also whined impatiently. Now I have a well-trained 'wave and whine!'
I have found the clicker most useful in teaching the more difficult exercises, such as contact points, weaves, and direction commands. The same principles apply to each of these. Break the exercise down into small stages, and backchain from the last stage first. For example, weaving starts with two poles, then four, and so on. I found this very difficult to picture until I actually tried it, but Twigs did learn very quickly, in spite of all the mistakes I made.
A word of caution
Handlers also need a bit of practice to use a clicker effectively, as it soon becomes just a meaningless sound if it is overused or used inappropriately. I found an introductory workshop invaluable, and practiced by teaching tricks to my older dogs before starting work with Twigs. I did not use the clicker to teach easy obstacles which she would attempt readily for an instant reward (e.g. tunnels and low jumps for a thrown ball), but I did use it to sort out any misunderstandings. So the first time she jumped through the side of the tyre - my fault, I threw the ball too soon - I switched to clicking and rewarding correct tyre jumps, which quickly clarified that one.
Using a clicker speeds up the learning process, by making it easier for the dog to understand what is required. One of the most useful, and also one of the easiest things I taught Twigs was to go and touch a target. This became the basis of a sendaway, as well as contact points and direction commands.
I am sure other people will have many more examples, and I look forward to reading of their experiences. To any one thinking of making the change, I would say, 'Go ahead - there is much to gain and nothing to lose'.
Shirley Frankcom is a member of Scunthorpe OATC, and has competed over the last 15 years with a Tervuren and three collies. Twigs will be making her ring debut at the end of May.
As yet, there is little specific information available about the effect of clicker training on agility. Does it really work in the ring? If you've trained your dog(s) using this new method and are very willing to share your knowledge, send your experiences to:- Ellen Rocco at Agilitynet