I watched a video awhile back of someone working with an animal who did not like having his ears touched. The trainer started by touching the animal’s neck, then touching close to the ear, touching near the base of the ear, touching the ear briefly, and eventually touching the ear for a little longer.
The trainer was using positive reinforcement. As well, the animal was not restrained so that he could leave at any time.
However, there was one big problem. The trainer was clicking entirely for her OWN behavior and was not paying attention to the animal’s behavior.
For example, on one repetition, the trainer reached out and briefly touched the animal’s ear. As she reached toward the ear, the animal’s eyes got big, his weight shifted away from the trainer, and the muscles in his head and neck tightened. However, when the trainer made contact with his ear, she clicked and gave a treat. She counted this repetition as a success because she was focused only on whether or not she was able to touch the animal’s ear.
The danger with clicking for your own behavior is that you may end up reinforcing tension, moving away, and other behaviors that you don’t actually want. As well, if you miss early signs of discomfort and stress, you may reach a point at which your animal can no longer tolerate what you are trying to do. Your animal may be forced to offer a much bigger reaction in order to get your attention.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of clicking for your own behavior. There are a lot of behaviors when we just want the animal to be still while we do something, such as putting on a halter or harness, trimming nails or hooves, and many other veterinary tasks and daily care behaviors.
However, it’s important to stop and think about exactly what you want the animal to be doing. Do you want a stationary and tense animal who holds still just long enough for you to do something? Or, an animal who offers happy and relaxed body language during a task? Which type of animal is you shaping procedure producing?
I know I’ve been guilty many times in the past for clicking for my own behavior and not paying enough attention to my animal’s behavior. I’ll write more in future posts about how to put more focus on what you want your animal to be doing.