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Veterinarian Technician May 2011 (Vol 32, No 5)

Inside Behavior: Using Capturing to Train Dogs

by David Thatcher, KPA-CTP

    Every dog owner is familiar with the interesting behaviors that make his or her dog special. Perhaps the dog tilts its head to one side like it is listening intently, holds its paw up when begging, or folds its front paws when lying down. These characteristic behaviors help make up a dog’s “personality” and endear dogs to their owners. Dog owners tell their friends and family about their dogs’ characteristic behaviors, but dogs seldom display these behaviors when their owners want them to.

    This is when a training technique called capturing can be useful. In capturing, a trainer “marks” a dog’s behavior without prompting it: the dog offers the behavior, and the trainer clicks a clicker and positively reinforces the behavior by offering the dog a treat. Whenever the dog offers the behavior, the trainer reinforces it with a click and a treat. This regular positive reinforcement encourages the dog to offer the behavior more consistently to produce a reward.

    Capturing can be used to associate any behavior with a cue (e.g., “Down”). As soon as a dog starts performing a behavior intentionally, a cue can be introduced. However, some trainers wait until the dog is performing the behavior 10 to 15 times per minute before introducing a cue. Either method can result in successfully training a dog to perform a behavior when given a cue.

    I have a 4-minute video that demonstrates the power of capturing. In the first training session on the video, I click only when the dog turns its head to the left. By the end of the session, the dog intentionally turns its head to the left. I would normally associate this behavior with a cue, but for demonstrative purposes, I did not. To show how powerful capturing is, I click a different behavior in the next training session. Instead of clicking head turns to the left, I click head turns to the right. The dog offers head turns to the left because they were rewarded in the previous session, but the dog begins to offer head turns to the right because they are being reinforced. In this session, head turns to the right are not quite ready to be associated with a cue: although I see some intention in the dog’s behavior, I also see some hesitation when the dog offers the behavior. Another session is needed before this behavior can be associated with a cue.

    One question trainers ask about capturing is, “If a dog starts offering a different behavior in a session, can I change what I am clicking?” My answer is, “It depends.” If an initial behavior has not been fully captured and the dog consistently offers a different behavior, I may change what I click. My video shows that clicking a different behavior within a session does not slow the learning process of the latter behavior. However, if I want to associate the initial behavior with a cue, I do so when the behavior is ready to be cued and before clicking another behavior.

    Capturing can also be used in behavior modification. I use capturing in a “look there” game when training a dog that is reactive to other dogs. While the reactive dog is still under threshold (the state just before the dog lunges, growls, or barks at another dog) and another dog comes into view, I click and offer a treat as the reactive dog’s head starts to turn toward the other dog. When the reactive dog begins to intentionally look at the other dog, I add the verbal cue “look there” as the reactive dog turns its head toward the other dog. The reactive dog is being rewarded for looking at other dogs, which is a good start to a behavior modification plan.

    Other behaviors that I have captured include sitting, lying down, head dipping, lip licking, ear flicking or bending, barking, and digging. Anything that a dog does regularly can be captured. Capturing is fun, easy, and very powerful in communicating with dogs.


    The author's credentials (KPA-CTP) stand for "Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner."

    NEXT: Tech Tips (May 2011)

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