Clicker-Training Your Dog | Getting Started
It's a matter of timing
If you've heard of "clicker training," but you're not sure what it's all about - it's a matter of timing. The "click" sound lets the dog know, at that instant, that he's good and that whatever it was he just did is worthy of reward.
Dogs live in the moment. If you let the "good" moment go by without a reward, the dog will be on to something else and the training opportunity has passed.
It's happened to me - while I was fumbling for a treat to reward my dog for a wonderful sit, he got up and it was too late.
The clicker is a "bridge" in training - letting your dog know he's been good, even if it takes a minute or two to find the treat.
Learn from the experts
Karen Pryor, author of "A dog & a dolphin," is one of the best-known proponents of "operant conditioning" training - also known as "positive reinforcement." At its most basic level, you reward the behaviors you want and ignore the ones you don't want.
Easier said than done, of course. It takes a little practice to become proficient with using the clicker and getting the timing right. But you don't have to be perfect - the more you practice the better you'll get and you'll be able to have fun with your dog while both of you learn a new, fun way of training.
At first you'll just be teaching your dog a new way of learning, not really trying to accomplish any particular behavior or "trick."
"Load" the Clicker. Teach your dog to love the clicker. Click-reward. Click-reward. Click-reward. Click-reward. The more you do it, the more your dog will love hearing that sound and look for opportunities to make you click it.
The next step is getting your dog to "offer" good, new behaviors in order to hear that clicker and get rewarded. Try putting a towel on the floor. If the dog looks at the towel, click and reward. If the dog takes a step toward the towel, click and reward.
Try not to reward for the same behavior more than two or three times. If the dog's been rewarded for looking at the towel a couple of times, try "upping the ante." Be patient and wait for him to try something different, like stepping toward it, sniffing it, putting a paw on it, moving it. Just something different, so he learns the rules of the game.
The objective is for your dog to realize that she's allowed to try things. She'll always be rewarded for thinking out solutions.
The hardest part is being patient and not "helping" the dog. The more you help, the more helpless your dog will be - waiting for you to solve its problems, rather than thinking things through by himself.
Clicker training basics
Rules of Clicker Training
- Be patient. Give your dog time to think about it and don't expect instant reactions. It's new for your dog, too.
- Make it fun. Your dog's favorite thing in the whole wide world is you. Getting the gift of your time and attention is the best thing ever. There's no difference between "play" and "training" to your dog - as long as you're spending time with him.
- Nobody's perfect. Everybody has a bad day at work - including your dog. Some sessions won't seem to go very well, for whatever reason. Just put it away and come back later. You may be surprised that your dog will come back and perfectly perform the behavior he just didn't understand earlier.
- Never try to train when you're angry, or frustrated. Whatever you're feeling will travel right down the leash to your dog.
- Keep sessions short - two or three five-minute sessions a day are often more productive than an hour straight.
- Don't be surprised if your dog is either exhausted or manic after a training session - making her use her brain is new, exciting, and tiring.
Need some new tricks to learn?
If you're already a bit familiar with Clicker Training, or if you'd like to introduce a young person to the idea, the Click-A-Trick Card set gives step-by-step instructions for 10 tricks to teach your dog in seven to 10 steps, clearly laid out. The iClick Clicker is included with the cards - all you need to add is some treats and your dog.
Training my dog
Because I was using both hands for signalling Teddy and for treats, I didn't use the clicker in this session, although it is an example of positive reinforcement training.
When Teddy's doing what I want, he's gets both verbal reinforcement and treats. When he tries something other than what I wanted (pawing at my hand for the treats), I ignored it and reminded him what we were doing.
The "roll-over" behavior was the end point in a series of much smaller behaviors Teddy learned first. When you want your dog to learn a complex behavior, you'll need to break it down into smaller steps and teach each one of those individually.
A favorite is to point your finger at the dog, say "bang," and the dog rolls over and plays dead. The different behaviors included are: down, lie on your side (partial roll), and stay. Each should be taught individually before trying to put them all together. And every step along the way should be heavily rewarded.
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