Cindy Hyde

Bridge and Target Training Seminar
April 26, 2003
By Cindy Hyde (Houston Obedience Training Dog Club)

(Note: BnT is a language of SATS)

I attended a one-day seminar on Bridge and Target Training, given by Kayce Cover. She is an animal behavior specialist, but primarily trains exotic animals and their care givers and handlers. She does not do competitive obedience, agility or any other dog sport; however, her method for training your dog will make your endeavors in those areas much more rewarding and informative.

What is Bridge and Target training, you ask? Well, if clicker training is operant conditioning as opposed to classical conditioning (Pavlov’s work), Bridge and Target (BnT) is operant communication. Your dog (or cat, bird, pig, horse, cow, monkey or sea lion) is able to actually learn quickly after you master three basic elements of BnT. Let me see if I can clarify some of the terms and reasoning behind operant conditioning and operant communication.

Operant conditioning is where you actually use what are called conditioned reinforcers to indicate the moment a dog does what you want it to do. The click is paired with food to become such a reinforcer. The click actually ends the behavior you click so you can reward that behavior. The click itself is not the food reward, but it tells your dog that a food reward is not far behind. The theory is that once a dog learns the conditioned reinforcer, it will continue to give you the behavior you just rewarded. The lack of a click means the behavior wasn’t what you wanted, so no reward is coming.

Clicker training is a wonderful way to give your dog some information, but it does not allow the dog to give you any information. It has undoubtedly saved many dogs from the needle because it gives people a tool that they didn’t have before to modify undesirable behavior. However, just like other tools, it is not the ultimate answer to all problems.

BnT involves the dog making some decisions on it’s own accord, giving them a way to give information back to you about training. You do have to establish the basis, which is the bridge and the target. Initially, the bridge is a sound—Kayce prefers X because it is not a common sound that is used in everyday conversation, it is easy to pronounce and it can and should be a crisp sound when you say it as a terminal bridge. In BnT, there are two types of bridge, the intermediate bridge (ib) and the terminal or ending bridge (TB). So, if you are bridging a desired behavior, you would give an intermediate bridge (xxxx…) until the dog has completed the desired behavior, then give the terminal bridge (X) at the end. Kayce uses about a 30% food reinforcement rate, compared to a much higher clicker reinforcement rate. In about three lessons, the dogs in class went from waiting for the food reward to working just for the pleasure of working, bypassing the bowl of treats on the floor to work.

I must say that I was amazed at how quickly all the dogs picked up what was happening, and that they chose to participate. If they choose not to participate, the handler gives them a very quick time out by turning their face or body away, then turning back and offering the target again. Kayce said that she had to do 15 time outs on one dog, but it usually only takes 3 before the dog chooses to work. This is one way of the dog being able to tell you if they want to work—they choose not to address the target. All the dogs at the seminar chose to work.

The hardest part of the BnT training for me is making a plan and labeling the behaviors that I want. What is my goal and how do I plan to get there? When you consider that each behavior you may wish to train is really composed of multiple actions, it can seem overwhelming until you list the parts. With the bridging, you can then move on to targeting while bridging. Once the dog has the concept, you can create multiple targets and cause multiple behaviors.

Also, you explain to the dog what you want, naming body parts and actions. Say you want the dog to give you the left paw. You name the paw, tell the dog what you want, show the dog your target, bridge while the dog is in process of giving you the paw, then give a terminal bridge when the behavior is complete. If you want the dog to hold a position, you give the intermediate bridge until you want them to move again, then give the terminal bridge. I watched several dogs touch the target (in this case, two fingers) and hold the touch while being bridged, then terminate the touch when they hear the terminal bridge. In the case of heeling, you give an intermediate bridge while the dog is in correct heeling position. If the dog forges, you become silent, only giving a bridge when the dog is again in the correct position. They have learned the correct position because you have presented them with a target and bridged them while they were in the zone. Once they have learned the behavior, you fade the intermediate bridge and give a terminal bridge when the process is complete.

One of the concepts presented was called “perception modification.” It was an exercise to deal with hyperactive or testy dogs. We were shown how to massage the dog and where, while telling the dog to relax or “easy” or “calm”. Once the dog calmed, and all of them did within 5 minutes, we began to “proof” the behavior. Since I was there without a dog, I got to help with distractions. We did what Kayce called “cycling” where we would take only one step toward the dog being calmed, then take one step back. Then we took two steps forward and two steps back. We kept our arms and bodies relatively still while we did this. We worked up to being able to walk to and past the dogs. Then we started with one step again, only this time we added smooth arm motion. We cycled again, one step, two steps, four steps, eight steps. Then we added staccato arm motions and cycled again. Once that cycle was complete, we added strange foot motions and arm motions. By this time, all the dogs were lying on their sides as we did a serpentine pattern with staccato arm movement and stomping feet around them all. Not a one raised their head or reacted at all. The whole process took less than 15 minutes. The one hyperactive golden retriever was calm and sedate for the rest of the seminar. One sheltie there amazed her owner by being calm and not alerting to every little movement or noise the rest of the day. It gave me a weird feeling to see the complete change in that short a time with the golden. I was privy to see it in action again at the end of the day. The seminar hostess had a poodle who got snappy with the golden when they got too close together. They were “calmed” by voice only and were able to be within two feet of each other in literally 5 seconds.

All the dogs were exhausted by 3 pm. Kayce says that they become tired because it takes energy for them to be calm. All I know is that all the dogs were flat out on the floor by 3 pm and looked like they were enjoying learning the new way. A couple had been conventionally trained, a couple had been trained using a clicker, including the golden, and some a combination of the two. By two pm, which included having a leisurely lunch with good conversation, all the dogs were showing such progress and the handlers were more sure of themselves and the method that it was awe inspiring.

Now I have to go home, make my plan for Calvin and get with it!

Copyright April 2003 Cindy Hyde