Building Duration With 300 Peck Pigeons

Want your rambunctious dog to be able to sit in a down-stay for 10 minutes or walk on a loose leash for a mile?
How about teaching your young horse to let you hold his foot for an extended period of time of stand still for a 20 minute grooming session?

Many people have trouble with building behavior because they try to build in too big of chunks, frustrating both them and the animal. One easy way to start building behavior is using a simple exercise called the 300 peck pigeon. (Often also called 1000 pigeon pecks, 300 pecking pigeon, or some other variation.) The name refers to a procedure early behavior analysts used for teaching a pigeon to peck a target hundreds of times.

How does this work in practice? For instance, it can be very hard to teach some dogs to heel.
So, you would walk one step with the dog in the heel position, then click and treat. When the dog can reliably go one step around 80% of the time, you start going two steps. Once the dog gets two most of the time, increase the task to three, then four, then five. Anytime the dog “messes up,” start back at the beginning and do one repetition of one step, then one rep of 2 steps, then one rep of three, until you get back to where you were before. The advantage of this system is that you keep a very high rate of reinforcement on a pretty hard task and set the dog up for success.

I’ve started building some of this into my riding with Shiloh, who was having a lot of trouble moving lightly off my leg cues and maintaining a good pace for an extended period of time. He is still very green under saddle, and I don’t want to get into the habit of having to squeeze every ten steps to keep him going! This would wear me out eventually and make him less sensitive to my aids.

He was having trouble moving off my leg aids. So, I started by asking for a walk with a squeeze and a kiss. I set my criteria low, and clicked and gave him a treat if he at least moved forward a few steps. Then, I toughened my criteria, and began clicking only when he moved forward with at least some energy. Then I started only clicking for 3 or more steps, then 5 or more. When he had that down, then 7, then 10. Steps are small units and he caught on quickly so I was increasing in larger increments than one. (If you’re working on a very difficult task or your animal has very little experience with the task, increments of one can be very helpful.) After 3 sessions of 10-20 minutes, he was walking with enthusiasm 2-3 times around our small round pen before I clicked and treated him.

300 peck pigeons is an easy and stress free way to start building duration for some pretty difficult problems. Also, since it’s clicker training, it ends up being a fun and enjoyable experience for both you and the animal.

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