The Zen Game of Face: A beginner's clicker game to teach self control

That bit about the cookie being.....right.....there! Why on earth would your puppy give you direct eye contact when he could be looking at the cookie?

This game teaches your puppy to look at your face instead of the cookie. The concept that working on the cookie directly will not make it become available is a difficult one! But really, teaching this concept is only a matter of well-timed clicking and treating.

You can show your puppy at a very young age how powerful it is to choose to "work for a living." Your puppy will learn here that offering behaviors that earn the click is how to make that cookie right there become available. 

Teaching your puppy to "work for a living"

We'll start simply: looking at your face will earn the click. Use your mouth to make a certain noise if you don't have a clicker. The click noise tells the puppy that he earned a treat. The click predicts that the treat will immediately follow.

What is a treat? A treat will be anything your dog is willing to work for. But if he doesn't know how to work for a living yet, then the treat is the only thing on his mind, which means he doesn't see "working" as a means to that treat.

Until the dog understands the zen of working, he can't take his attention off of the treat directly.

How do we teach him how to work? We'll show him through well-timed clicks and treats that a counterintuitive action will cause the treat to happen, whereas trying to get the treat directly will not cause it to happen. You want your puppy to look at your face even though that is the opposite of what nature tells him to do.  

This concept of using behavior ("work") to get treats in life will be one of the cornerstones of good manners, and fundamental to any sport we want to play with our dog. And the "treats" of your dog's life will expand from the simple cookies we will use here. This game is simply a useful starting point to help your puppy learn to operate effectively and cooperatively in our human world. He already studies your face on his own time. Let's show him the value of focusing on your face in order to make good things happen.

Your pup by now is experimenting with many behaviors in life. In this game, the winning behavior consists of looking at your face. You will always be glad that you have established value for your face. So we'll begin by clicking that, and following with a treat. The treat is what the puppy wants. Whether that thing is a cookie, a ball, greeting a friend, or going outside... You can play this game with all sorts of treats. Start with something simple like cookies! That way you get many repetitions quickly, and the dog has only you and the cookies to process, rather than a complex environment. 

THE ZEN GAME OF FACE: Steps and Hints for Success

SET UP. Set up the situation with your treats, and let your pup see the treats. No secrets here.

WAIT! Hold still and be quiet. Let him think, and ignore any whining or antics. If he's wild, then begin on leash and start with a lower value treat. The more independent he is, then the more cooperative he will be later IF you can resist the urge to "make him mind" now.

Step on the leash if need be. But do not order him about. Instead, let him discover how to train you to give him the treat. He is learning the value of his mind. Don't do that for him, or he won't learn to do it for himself. You will need his working mind on your team.

CLICK/TREAT. When your puppy looks at you, even if by accident, click! Then give him the treat. Using a clicker for this game will make it much clearer to the dog which of his many possible behaviors will get him what he wants. His first attempt at looking at your face might be no more than a glance! Or you might even need to start by rewarding just eye movement to your face, without the head movement. You be the judge of the first reinforceable behavior from your dog.

Know what you are choosing and why. The first winning behavior should be easy for your dog to do! That's the beauty of this process that we call "shaping" a behavior. The first step might be far removed from the final product. But the finished behavior will take shape as you keep practicing. Even if you click only eye movement at first, that will soon lead to head movement. Wait for just a bit more each day until your pup is turning his whole head to look fully at your face.

IMPROVE. Repeat this game for about two sessions per day. Gradually increase the behavior required to earn a treat. The more disconnected your dog is, the more gradual your increase in requirements will be.

Begin with a treat that is quiet and quick, like a cookie, rather than a treat which takes a long time, like chasing a ball. Work up to a couple of seconds of focus on your face. This may take a few minutes or a few days! Keep it fun! Don't rush the steps, because we want the puppy to love this game, not just accept it.

After your dog can look at you for a couple of seconds, start to mix up the amount of time it takes for him to earn the click.

In other words, sometimes a brief second's attention will earn a click. Other times it will be two full seconds. Dogs are experts at time sense, and you do not want your time interval or duration of focus to be predictable.

GENERALIZE. When your pup is in command of this game, he looks immediately from the treat to your face. He cannot be fooled. He doesn't waste time trying to get the cookie directly. So you'll know when he "owns" the game.

Then it is time to take your show to more distracting environments, or to use more challenging treats, such as chasing a ball or greeting a friend, or going outdoors. Expect a setback in the pup's concentration each time you complicate the environment or the reward. So begin at the beginning again when your elements of difficulty are more challenging! Start easy, and stick to the system. Click, and then release. Celebrate success! This is a game, not a chore, so keep it fun!

The zen approach can be used to teach other counterintuitive behaviors, too, and we will get into that as our class gets going. This game is just a simple and basic start. Consider this game to be a prerequisite to the focus and self control games we will be playing in class.

This is tough stuff! It's simple, all right, but it's not easy! Your puppy has to look away from the cookie in order to look at you. Looking away from the treat in order to get the treat is not natural to him.

But if you introduce the concept with this win-win and dog's choice game, you will be on your way to building teamwork, which will enhance your relationship.

If you want it, let it go. Zen at work. This is a fun place to start. Enjoy the process! 

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