Clicker Training: For Huskies Pt 1
Let’s kick off with a little apology: I’m sorry it’s been a while. We’ve been working away on some really good content, and as a result everything’s taking a little longer to become finalised.
But, aside from the other planned content, I wanted to step aside and give you a little insight in to something we’ve been doing for the last couple of weeks; Clicker Training.
In short; it’s a positive-focused training method, using a specifically designed clicker, to help your dog understand when it does something correct.
The more involved description below taken from Karen Pryor’s website; https://clickertraining.com/whatis
“Clicker training” is an animal training method based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking desirable behavior and rewarding it.
Desirable behavior is usually marked by using a “clicker,” a mechanical device that makes a short, distinct “click” sound which tells the animal exactly when they’re doing the right thing. This clear form of communication, combined with positive reinforcement, is an effective, safe, and humane way to teach any animal any behavior that it is physically and mentally capable of doing.
Why aren’t you using clicker training?
I’ve been asked a few times before, just why aren’t you doing it, and my answer was somewhat stuck on repeat; huskies just don’t respond well to traditional training methods.
That was a phrase I learnt in my formative dog ownership years; primarily from very knowledgeable and experienced breed owners and trainers. So, obviously, it was gospel.
But last month, I was asked again. Have you never tried it?
A more opened mindset and a brief discussion later, it turns out there’s a book specifically to help you understand the Clicker Training method for “stubborn” dogs.
The book; WHEN PIGS FLY!
‘When Pigs Fly!’ is a brilliantly written piece by Jane Killion. Through the book she discusses everything from why some dogs are considered ignorant or stubborn (hint: they aren’t actually), to how different types of difficult dog can be taught to love training, and even doing the behaviour you ultimately want of them.
Trying to purvey her expertise in a few words here would be a serious injustice to her research, knowledge and brilliance as a writer; so, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy (the eBook/Kindle version is really cheap!)
(‘When Pigs Fly!’ is available in both Kindle and Paper Back versions)
Let’s not take anything for granted here, it’s really early days (talking a couple weeks), and Sibe’s are anything but consistent when it comes to attention span (unless there’s a squirrel involved). But, I have to say, I have much more attentive dogs.
During their attentive and working mindset (when out on walks and during dedicated training time) I can have all of them turning on a penny to give me attention, around 80% of the time. That though, is probably 70% more than before. So that last 20% is hopefully something we can work towards.
I know somewhere out there right now, someone will be pointing a finger at this page saying; “LOOK, HE SAYS HE’S TRAINED HIS HUSKIES BUT THEY’VE GOT HEADCOLLARS ON.” – Yeah, you’d be right, and I’d agree. But this training system isn’t a quick fix over a few days. Behaviours previously unattainable now appear to be within sight, but only with a lot more work and dedication. I’m certainly not letting my guard down yet.
What have they learnt?
Well, nothing, yet. Not really. A whole lot of this training system is about teaching your dog how to be taught. It’s quite an abstract concept at first glance. But sit back and think about it, and preferably read the book. It really makes a whole lot of sense.
So they’ve learnt nothing; but they now understand how to learn everything.
Since I’ve been doing this, I’ve had a few comments; “How long until you can let them off-lead then?” is certainly the favourite.
You would think, with such a positive reaction from my dogs in such a short period of time, that ultimately, off-lead success would be totally possible…right? Wrong.
One thing I have learnt so far from this process is just how some of their typical quirks manifest themselves under new situations.
They are now way more attentive, for sure. But that determination and drive that has brandished them as inattentive and stubborn for so long now is very much still a factor in their learning.
Trying to hypothesise this is tricky, so the real world example;
My youngest is probably my keenest learner. We are in a situation where he understands roughly what sort of activity gets him a reward (tasty treat). That activity, is interacting with a cardboard box (it sounds mad, seriously; read the book). We’ve been doing this training routine for a few days now, he absolutely and totally gets it. The sight of the box excites him as a result; he is 100% onboard with the system.
He also understands, the more lavishly he interacts with the box, the more treats he gets and the faster they come. Several times within this 10 minute session, he plays with the box in the same manor he has the entire session, but ignores the cue that he’s done right and a treat is coming. He has no interest in the box itself. He’s seen it for days. He’s just moving it around to see what I’ll give him, but even so, his focus blinkers the end goal. I won’t continue to use the trigger when he ignores it (as this is just teaching him to ignore it), and after 10 seconds or so of blind trying, he’s exhausted his options, and looks at me as if to say “was that not enough?”.
Nothing about his behaviour suggested he wanted to achieve anything other than being gifted the treat, yet he couldn’t recognise the cue over his own ambition.
Experts in the Clicker Training game would say that I didn’t load the clicker up properly. Trust me, that thing is properly loaded. His reaction to it 98% of the time is insane. I can’t believe how strong a reaction this thing evokes in him. He cries blue murder when he can hear the faint sound of another dog playing the game several rooms away. Yet, when it’s his turn, that husky focus can still play a hindrance.
This is by no means a full and extensive evaluation, just what we’ve experienced so far. I will save some quirks and stories about how my other dogs approach this training method for a later post.
Application for Bikejoring
Exploring Clicker Training was something intended to be a purely experimental and to see if the breed could become accustomed to it, and just another way to build those positive bonding moments with my dogs.
One of the core examples given by Jane Killion in her book however, is one of her own dogs who went from exceptionally lazy, to national-class agility competitor. That is a marked improvement.
It also rings very true to me – as anyone who knows me personally is aware; I have a really lazy husky. There’s no health issue or general causation. He’s big, strong, fit and confident. And an absolute coach potato. So knowing that clicker training could lead to a marked improvement in his physical activity, even without aspirations of national success, is a huge boost and motivator to continue.
What do you need to start Clicker Training?
Well, you need a clicker, and a bullet proof plan of how to use it. If I haven’t mentioned it enough times already, get a copy the book ‘When Pigs Fly!’ – if it’s a ‘stubborn’ dog you have, this resource is absolutely invaluable.
A couple of good clickers and general training kit we’d recommend are below;
Once my dog, myself and my bike are ready to bikejor…what’s next?
So, you’ve checked off everything on our guide?
Great! But now you want to know where, when and why? The type of questions you’re going to be asking will vary depending your situation. What we’d suggest now, is to get on The Bikejor Bible Facebook group, and ask what local people are doing in your area.
And wherever you start out, keep the following infographic from mysiberianhusky.co.uk – making sure the conditions are suitable for your lovely pooch.
How do I get my bike ready for bikejoring?
So, let’s talk bikes…bikes are one of my favorite things in the world to talk about, second only to dogs, naturally. But, super snazzy carbon-fibre race machines aren’t the only way for bikejor. Age, style and cost rarely come in to it. You just need to following:
- Make sure your bike is safe. Don’t know how to tell? Get it in to your local bike shop for a quick once-over. £30-50 should get you a proper run through and adjustment to get everything working properly, and they’ll let you know if there’s anything of any concern.
- Make sure your brakes stop you quickly. If your brakes can’t stop you quickly, what chance have they got against you and a dog pulling? Hydraulic disc brakes are an almost-must, although I appreciate that they can cost-out some people. Again, it’s worth talking to your local bike shop about this. Prices have tumbled in recent years, and provided your bike can accommodate them, they are a very worthy investment.
- Bikejor arm. A bikejor arm is a piece of kit that aims to keep the running line out of your front wheel (and you out of trouble). They aren’t fool-proof, as I’ve found to my own detriment, but they are a huge help, and we genuinely couldn’t recommend running without one. Check out the video below for some more info. To find the right bikejor arm for you, search out local stockists on The Bikejor Bible Facebook group.
- The line. Using a walking leash here simply will not suffice. It doesn’t matter if it’s got 8 bungees and naturally deters squirrels, it’s just not made for it. Material type, length and all the other options you can think of are generally personal preference, but be aware that some race organisations (should you go down that route) do specific min/max lengths. For strong dogs, you should be looking out for something with a good strong bungee. There’s so many options available, your best best again is to search out local stockists on The Bikejor Bible Facebook group.
How do I get myself ready for bikejoring?
Okay, so you’ve got your dog(s) covered…now on to you. Let’s start by bursting the bubble…you can’t impress anyone, but you can make everyone laugh. That phrase is something I’ve picked up from motor-racing circles, but you know what, it’s just so true here.
I believe many, before they start out, have wonderful dreams about them and their dogs being a natural, being fast from day one, and causing an upset among the well initiated. I’m sorry to tell you now, you can’t. You may well be a damn-sight better than people expect, but that’s the very best you can expect.
Mentally, you need to leave your ego at the door. This is a sport where everything and nothing is in your control all at the same time. If you’ve got great bike handling skills, brilliant, you’ll feel like you’re rarely using them. Got no notable mountain biking experience? Damn, you’ll wish you had. It’s a perplexing field where the only way to succeed, is to have fun.
Ignore that stop watch, put down that GPS tracker and just take your dog out for 5 minutes.
That’s all you need to do. Everything else, distance, speed, time, skills…they can all come later. Just take it steady and make it fun. There is nothing more to starting out.
Sorry, there’s a bit of a rant there…but it’s for a good purpose. All of the videos you’ll likely have seen online so far are from high-level championship races and from extensively well trained teams – no-one ever shares their painful first year(s) footage. Where every run seems to go not-quite-right, and self consciousness takes over. Here’s a tip – hardly anyone ever gets a perfect run. For perfection to occur in a situation like this you need yourself, your dog, your bike, the weather, the surrounding wildlife and the dirt below you, all to behave. Let’s just go from the outset with the opinion that, it just won’t happen.
Now, hopefully, you’re mentally prepared for this journey, and with that refreshed view, let’s look at your physical attributes to preparedness.
You need to be able to ride a bicycle, and understand how the brakes work. You need to know instinctively what commands to call out, and put in place some contingency plans in case it all goes wrong.
And finally, you need a few bits of kit for yourself:
This is the most important. Yes you know how to ride a bike, and you even rode down that really steep hill once without dying. But…why risk it? Seriously. Any insurance policy or race organisation will deem it mandatory, and should something happen to you, who’s gonna look after your pooch? Regular or full-face lid is your choice. I like to mix it up between the two depending on the conditions. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for them. Lids’ up folks.
Not absolutely mandatory but strongly recommended. Especially in loose conditions, not only will the front tire be throwing dirt up in to your face, but the dogs will be flicking dirt up-and-at-you too. A bit of stray dog-poo in the eye is not fun people! Goggles look awesome along with a full-face helmet.
Totally personal preference, but hands are likely to take the brunt of a fall, and help a great deal against those pesky trail-side nettles.
- Knee and Elbow Pads
It’s difficult to justify this to some people, you’ll never want to wear pads right up until you come off properly for the first time. Then it’s a world of regret. Think wisely.
- Appropriate Clothing
You don’t need to go all-out looking like a Tour De France winner, or a Downhill MTB superstar. But comfortable, hard-wearing clothing is your friend. Flat footwear is preferable, as it gives better traction on your pedals.
That’s it…you are prepared. (Assuming the other core elements are also up-to-scratch; check here).
How do I get my dog ready for bikejoring?
Pre-training for bikejor really is a thing, and it’s pretty much mandatory…for an enjoyable experience at least.
The checklist for determining if your dog is ready to bikejor goes something like this:
- Understands start / go / speed up commands
- Understands stop / ease-off / on-by commands
- Understands left and right turn commands
- Is suitably fit to run and pull a moderate load (even if you are helping)
- Has a well-fitted harness designed for dog sports (no, a Julius K9 is not appropriate)
Once your dog meets the above criteria, then you can start to thing about starting out (assuming the other core elements are also up-to-scratch; check here).
Points 1-3 above are all about communicating with your dog whilst on the trail. Although I can somewhat guarantee your first few outings will result in endless ignored calls…having some basework in beforehand can help when you really need it the most.
Teaching commands is fairly straight forward, and really is one of the easiest things to accomplish. All you need to do is use the same commands whilst walking, using these key terms to start, stop and turn left/right throughout your daily walks. On-by, ease-off, pick-up speed etc can also be taught whilst walking. Just consider the natural movements associated and endlessly repeat them until your dog actively appears to understand, only then, are they really ready.
What commands should you use? Well…it’s up to you. There is no absolute right and wrong. You’ll generally find a split between those influenced by traditional sled dog tuition and those who’ve migrated to bikejor from canicross and other ‘non-sleddy’ dog sports.
The traditional mushing approach is to use traditional mushing lingo:
- Start/Go/Speed Up – HIKE!
(Alternatives for Speed Up are often used as to differentiate – these are generally left to personal preference – we use ‘Get Up’, ‘Hitch Up’ etc. I don’t have an explanation as to why, other than our dogs like that sound.
- Stop – Whoa/Wow!
(I also use STOP! Because sometimes, when panic sets in, it’s useful for your default setting to be recognised)
- Slow Down – Easy!
- Turn Right – GEE!
- Turn Left – HAW!
- On By! – On By!
(Yep – it’s just as it sounds, use this to get past distractions in the trail or pass another team)
Harness for Bikejor
Minefield alert – it doesn’t matter what anyone says, there is no ‘best harness for bikejor‘. All there is, is the best harness for your dog – and sadly there’s only one way to discover what that is. (Yup, cue buying more and more kit)
There is some guidance we can give however, talk to people with similar dogs to you – dogs of the same breed and same size are your best bet – but start with any similarity you can, and see what they use. It won’t always work out, as similar as some dogs may be, their requirements for a bikejoring harness may still be leagues apart.
Don’t know anyone to ask? Fortunately the bikejor scene is going from strength to strength and with a lot of very experienced riders on our Facebook group The Bikejor Bible – you’ll be sure to find the best starting point for you.
Whenever it comes to equipment, people always want to know what brands and models. Well, here’s the thing, the likes of Non-Stop, Howling Alaska, Euro DC etc etc are all brilliant. They all suit some dogs better than others, but in general, going for a well used brand will do you good. But not all are available in all locations, so again use The Bikejor Bible Facebook group to locate people in your area who can recommend a stockist.