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The *STAR* System

Extract from Aunty Kaye’s Doggy Dictionary

The *STAR* System

When teaching your dog to do something on command, signal or cue you go through four steps:

SIGNAL – you give a signal (for example, say “sit”)

TEACH – you teach your dog the meaning of the signal by associating it with the action that you predict or somehow cause to happen next

ACTION – your dog does the action

REINFORCE – you reward your dog to reinforce that behaviour

In other words, you give the signal, teach your dog the meaning of the signal by inducing or predicting the appropriate action, then reward your dog for getting it right.

I call this the *STAR* system. It is a guide to the process of teaching your dog to perform trained actions on cue.

Each aspect of the *STAR* system plays a part in the training process, and each has its own body of knowledge and skills for the trainer to master.

S is for SIGNAL

The Signal is sometimes also called a command or cue. The dog has to learn the meaning of the signal and to do the appropriate action on cue, i.e. in response to the signal. This is a separate training task from the initial stage, that of getting the behaviour. It is called the stimulus control stage of training.

T is for TEACHING

Teaching provides the essential link between the signal and the dog’s action. There are several stages of training, in which the dog has to focus on different aspects of the exercise, whether it be doing the action or recognising the signal. The modern approach to training recognises that when the dog fails to “get it right” this is more likely to be due to incomplete understanding. This contrasts with the traditional approach that tends to assume that because the dog has done something, he or she “knows” it, and therefore should do it unfailingly.

A is for ACTION

The Action is the starting point of training. Your first step is to get the behaviour that you want, or at least an approximation of it. This sometimes called the Acquisition stage of training.

There are many ways of acquiring the behaviour. Luringshaping and physical manipulation, used either separately or in combination, are probably the most common. Capturing, which involves reinforcing spontaneous behaviour, which could be anything the dog does naturally, ranging from sitting to sneezing, is also commonly used by clicker trainers.

Getting the behaviour in the acquisition stage of training is not done because you want your dog to do that particular action right now. The purpose is to set up an opportunity for reinforcement – first to strengthen that behaviour, and then to introduce stimulus control, so that you can ask your dog to do that action in future.

R is for REINFORCEMENT

reward is given to reinforce the behaviour. There are many types of rewards, the most common for dogs being food, play with toys, praise or interaction with the handler and everyday life rewards such as saying hello, coming in or going out.

There is a vast body of knowledge about how to use rewards in training – the timing of rewards, when, why, how often and on what basis to give them or not give them and what effect this has on what the dog learns. Patterns of when to reward are generally calledschedules of reinforcement.

After the teaching stage, with a trained dog, you give the SIGNAL and the dog does the ACTION. Some trainers leave it at that, while others continue to REWARD their dog. No dog will endlessly repeat an action on command without any reward. However, it is not necessary to reward every time. Rewards should be reduced gradually, not cut out suddenly. To maintain training, occasional rewards should be given.

As you leave the TEACHING stage, you phase out any guidance or hints you initially gave your dog. Food should no longer be used as a lure to induce the behaviour. Physical guidance with your hands or with the lead should be phased out. Try to eliminate tell-tale body language from your signal, such as bending forward over your dog when you say “drop”. If you are clicker training, try not to “go backwards” by lowering your criterion or overusing your Keep Going Signal as a hint to your dog. The SIGNAL alone should now bring about the behaviour in a trained dog, regardless of your initial teaching method. However, in the long term, that trained behaviour must be maintained by some form of intermittent reinforcement.

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