Criteria in Clicker Training

Maybe the easiest way to describe the concept of criteria in dog training is to describe it as a plan or blueprint of different levels of training within a given exercise. Many people misuse this, or they are completely unaware of the concept altogether.

Now some of you may say: “I don’t need a plan, I just want to train my dog to sit”, that is the wrong approach.

Let’s look at what criteria we need to have a good reliable “sit” command trained (this is not in any particular order it is just an example):

  • Training the sit behavior and putting it on cue (first criterion)
  • Teaching the release marker (second criterion)
  • Training your dog to sit regardless of your body posture (third criterion)
  • Increase the timing and duration while the dog is in the sit position (fourth criterion)
  • Increase distance (fifth criterion)
  • Move to a different environment/generalization process (sixth criterion)
  • Add distractions (seventh criterion)

You see, in order to get your dog to sit on command, regardless of the distance, environment, distractions, and to sit for “x” amount of time until released, you need to go through and train each of these steps separately, as indicated above. If you miss one of them you will have an unreliable command. The main reason why a majority of dogs don’t perform their tasks reliably is because the owners, handlers or trainers weren’t paying attention to the training plan, or to the criteria.

You may think that “sit” is a simple exercise but in order to have this reliably trained, you have to train all of the different criteria for it. As much as this exercise seams simple to us, for a dog all of these components are separate training steps just like the sit and down are separate exercises.

This is because of the fact that dogs are really simple animals and they require simple, organized steps (criteria) in order to learn, many dog owners make mistakes by asking too much from their dogs.

TIP: Always keep in mind; what looks easy from our perspective is not always an easy concept for our dogs.

Organizing and raising Criteria

How to properly organize criteria is not such an easy task, however, once you start, every future exercise will get easier. I can’t pinpoint every single criterion for everyone without seeing the actual situation, exercise, dog, etc. but I can give you guidance as to what to pay attention to when creating a training plan.

This is the list of things you want to pay attention to:

Your level of knowledge, your dog’s level of knowledge and his previous training experiences

It is a known fact that older dogs and dogs that were previously trained through the use of compulsion methods have not developed their problem-solving skills (in fact, they normally avoid any “experimenting” as they have negative experiences from previous attempts). If they have developed some problem-solving skills, it isn’t normally at the same level as a dog that started out with clicker training from the start. If you are working with a dog that has little problem-solving skills, do simple tasks in order to build up his responsiveness. Plan your exercises carefully (keep the difficulty level of criteria at the lowest possible level in order for the dog to reach success more quickly) and start with simple exercises.

Create your plan for each exercise and keep it simple

How good of a dog trainer you are often determines your ability to look at an exercise and be able to break it into increments and then work on one increment at a time (one criterion at time). Always keep in mind that “sit”, “sit-stay” or “sit in the midst of walking” are three completely different exercises for your dog, and although all three of them include the same body posture, everything else is different. Many dog owners forget this simple thing and end up creating confusion for their dogs. Remember that dogs can only advance at the level that is understandable to them.

Learn to recognize problems

If you are training a particular exercise, and your dog gets “stuck”, you need to fix that issue. Normally the problem lays in the criteria, probably the criterion that you are working on is too big of a leap from the previous one and the dog can’t figure it out. Instead of being persistent in trying and getting your dog frustrated, lower your criteria, or arrange the environment, or change the place where you deliver the reward, etc. Help set your dog up to pass the level. Keep things simple, and make sure that your dog’s success is at the top of your priority list. It is not our goal to make it difficult for our dog; the goal is to make him successful.

TIP: This is probably one of the biggest mistakes dog owners do. They expect and ask too much from a dog in a way that the dog is not capable of delivering.

Think of it this way, if I come to you a few days in a row and give you puzzles to solve that you just can’t figure out, and then I cut your pay for that day because of this, after a few days, you will feel uncomfortable when I approach, you will feel stressed and hate puzzles, and even if after a few days, I give you something easier that is within your problem-solving capabilities, you will probably still fail. This is called “learned helplessness” which means that you won’t even try to solve it anymore, based on previous unsuccessful attempts; you will simply quit trying.

I have seen this happen many times throughout my career, dogs who simply “avoid” working with their owners, and who don’t care anymore for any type of reward.

Don’t get stuck, keep moving

When shaping behavior through raising criteria, you need to keep moving. If you get stuck on a certain step, your dog may figure that this is the “final step” and then if you try progressing after that point, it may be difficult, or you may end up with a trained exercise where your dog may occasionally stop in the middle of the performance.

Move at your dog’s pace and proceed with the criteria gradually, but be sure to not get stuck, always keep moving!

TIP: Don’t be afraid to try, if you move too fast from one criterion to another, you can always go back to the previous step, do a few repetitions and then move on again. It is better to try and if it doesn’t work to move a step back than to get stuck on one level.

Increase criteria gradually

Another area in which many people make mistakes is by not increasing the criteria gradually. There are two examples that we commonly see:

Heeling; many people tend to attempt huge leaps between marking/rewarding their dogs. First they reward every 2-3 steps and then they jump to 15-20 steps or even more. This type of training will never work. You need to increase criteria gradually, 2 steps, then 4 steps, then 7 steps, etc.

Another one is with the ‘sit-stay’. People tend to immediately try to leave their dogs for 15 seconds or more. Dogs don’t have patience and this is something that needs to be increased gradually. Having them stay for a couple of seconds, and then increasing gradually to 15 and then beyond, will set them up for success and will reinforce the behavior.

In many dog training situations, we can say that “smaller steps will get you to your destination faster”, keep this in mind.

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Return from Criteria to Clicker Training

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