Lesson #7: Back chaining
In the beginning we will usually clicker train one behavior per session. This is more effective than training many behaviors at the same time. But after a while, we may want to teach our dogs more advanced exercises or tricks. Such advanced tasks consist of several different behaviors, following upon one another in a set order. This is referred to as a behavior chain.
Behavior chains is a pretty advanced topic even in theory, so we are not going to go into any depths about them here and now. We are however going to create our very own first little behavior chain, so that you can get a little feel for it. The best way to learn about chaining is to DO it (and that, come to think about it, is true for most things in life...).
If you have been doing your homework so far, your dog has learnt to foot target a mouse pad and you have also added the cue for the sit. We are now going to put the target behavior and the sit together into a behavior chain.
How to create a behavior chain:
Begin by cueing the dog to sit, and click when the dog sits down. Repeat this 3-6 times, preferably even more times. It is of the utmost importance that the last part of the chain is well trained – the dog should really be happy about getting the chance to sit down. You will achieve this by repeating the sit multiple times and reinforcing each and every repetition.
Then we can add the first part of the chain, the target behavior on the mouse pad. Put the mouse pad on the ground. The dog will go to step on it (because you trained this earlier this week). When the dog steps on the mouse pad DO NOT click – instead give the cue to sit. When the dog sits, you click and treat. Congratulations – you have just clicker trained your very first behavior chain!
What you are really doing when back chaining like this is reinforcing the dog’s target behavior by cueing ”sit”. The cue to sit functions the very same way as the click – since you have repeated sit + reward so many times, the cue to sit gives the dog clear information that reward is on its way (just the same way the click would).
But what if you had done things the other way around, in other words first clicked the dog for targeting the mouse pad 6 times and then the seventh time the dog stepped on the mouse pad cued for the sit? That would not have been back chaining, but forward chaining and it is not as effective. What most likely would have happened that seventh time when you cued for the sit is that the dog would have said ”Hey, are you not going to click? You did that the last six repetitions!”. After waiting around for a second or two, he might have sat down. But the problem with forward chaining is that the cue to sit no longer reinforces the dog’s target behavior as effectively – a cue that comes as a surprise is not as reinforcing as a cue that the dog is expecting and looking forward to hear. So what often happens when you forward chain is that the first behavior in the chain breaks down – the dog stops targeting the mouse pad.
When you put two behaviors together you should therefore always back chain if it is possible to do so. It is a lot easier for the dog and the behavior chains becomes much more stable. This is particularly important after a while when you are going to begin training long behavior chains.
In this behavior chain our sit cue has a double function:
- It reinforces the targeting behavior
- It tells the dog to sit down
The cue’s double function is the ”glue” that makes the behavior chain stick together. Even if the dog only gets clicked for sitting down, the targeting behavior will be reinforced too (by the sit cue). This way, both behaviors in the chain are maintained even though there is only one reward at the end of the chain.
The testing phase
OK, you have now chained the two behaviors and repeated the entire chain 2-3 times. Everything is going great and you are thinking that there really is not all that much to this chaining business. But try to do the entire chain a few more times. You might get surprised. Common problems to arise are for example:
- The dog begins to try and see if there are simpler ways to get to the reward – he might for example try sitting down BEFORE he has targeted the mouse pad.
- The dog stops targeting the mouse pad.
- The dog stops responding to the sit cue.
So what should you do if the dog makes a mistake and for example sits down before being cued to do so? DO NOT click, but try again. Be sure to only cue ”sit” just as the dog steps on the mouse pad. If your timing of the cue is bad, you risk that the dog stops the targeting behavior (since you are not reinforcing it).
The five times test
If you can repeat the entire behavior chain 5 times in a row without the dog making a mistake, you can be happy and contented – you have most likely chained correctly. If the fourth or fifth repetition is less good than the two first ones, that means that you are doing something wrong or that you are not quite at the finish line yet.
The most common reason for chaining to go wrong is that the behaviors/cues were not sufficiently well trained before you began chaining them together. Another common mistake is that you might be using forward chaining instead of back chaining – that will also often make the chain collapse quickly.
Make sure that the last behavior in the chain always is more prefered than the preceding one. That´s the key to reliable behavior chains.
- Train the chain foot target + sit on cue.
And remember - don´t get frustrated when (not if) you get to the testing phase. That your dog is testing is actually a good sign - it means that you are backchaining correctly and that the dog really wants to get to the end of the chain. Just stick to your criterias, and work your way through the testing phase. When you get through to the other side, you will have a very reliable behavior chain.
If you want to learn more about bachchaining we really recommend our book Clickertraining. The Four Secrets of Becoming a Supertrainer. There is one chapter that covers this topic in depth. Two of the bonus videos that comes with the book also gives you an excellent example on how to back chain advanced excercises. If you want to play with the big boys, you will learn how to use back chaining effectively! :-)
Thank you for completeing the clicker training lessons!
This lesson puts an end to the first part of this online clicker training course. We hope you have found it interesting, and most of all we hope that you want to learn even more and that you will continue to use clicker training every day.
The very best way to learn is to just do it - a lot! What new behavior can you teach your dog tomorrow...?
If you want ideas for useful and fun behaviors to teach, we recommend that you invest in our book Clickertraining: The Four Secrets of Becoming a Supertrainer. In this book we go much deeper into the theory behind clicker training, and you will also get step by step recipes for 30 behaviors you can clicker trainin with your dog.
The book also comes with 5 great bonus videos that will teach you way more advanced training then you have got to see in this course.
So whenever you are ready to take your dog training skills to the next level - check it out!
Until then - happy clicking!
:-) Morten & Cecilie
About the authors
This email course is made by Morten Egtvedt og Cecilie Koeste, chief instructors for Canis Clickertraining Academy and authors of the bestselling clicker training book Clickertraining: The Four Secrets of Becoming a Supertrainer.
The book is now available for instant download and comes with several excellent bonus videos where you can see how Morten and Ceci is training "live".