In dog training, it is far easier to teach and work with a dog when you have the dog’s undivided attention. Early training with a clicker, when done correctly, can provide this type of rapt attention, leading to more success and connection between the owner and the dog for performance events and in everyday life.
CLICKER TRAINING IN A NUTSHELL
The clicker is a very powerful tool to train a dog with. When using the clicker, the dog does the correct action, the clicker is clicked, and the dog is rewarded. When used correctly, the dog will learn that the sound of the clicker tells him exactly which specific behavior is the right one. The most important part of the clicker is that it sounds the same, every time. It always remains neutral. Voices can inflect various emotions, which will constantly change during training. Praise words can vary a lot, unless you are very disciplined! Also, as we go through our daily lives with our dogs, our voices become white noise as they learn that we are not always talking to them. All day long they hear us talking with our spouses, kids and on the telephone. The television and radio are frequently on and they quickly learn to block this out too. But the clicker is not a sound that they hear constantly every day. It is a clear, distinct sound which the dog can easily understand once he is trained to it.
Remember that you must reinforce the click in some way, with treats, toys, petting or play, or the click begins to lose meaning. Once a behavior is learned though, and the dog is solid with the behavior, the dog can be weaned from the clicker. You would do this gradually. Instead of clicking and rewarding every time the dog responds correctly, alternate it with praise or go on to the next behavior.
HOW TO BEGIN
Since the clicker has no meaning at first to the dog, you will have to teach him that it has value. Start out with the dog in front of you and a big handful of treats. Smoothly click and treat, click and treat, click and treat. As long as the dog is not jumping or barking, continue this for roughly three minutes. Make sure he receives the treat within one-half second after you have clicked so that he can make the connection between the sound and the treat. Most dogs will quickly understand this, but if for some reason your dog doesn’t, simply repeat this lesson a few more times.
Once your dog understands the connection between the clicker and the treat, stand by your dog with the clicker in one hand and treats in the other. Make sure to keep your hands down by your sides. Each time the dog looks at your face, click and treat immediately. Put your hands down by your side again, and wait for him to look at your face or make eye contact. Click and treat. Repeat this as often as he looks at you for about five minutes. Do this throughout the day, a few minutes each time. It doesn’t matter what your dog is doing, just that he gives you his attention. Soon you will find that your dog is looking at you constantly throughout the day. This is good! This is the reaction that you want him to give you.
The next step is to teach your dog to recognize his name and respond instantly when he hears it. Do this by standing by your dog as in the previous exercise. Wait until he looks at you again, say his name, then click and treat. Do not say his name before he looks at you as you want this to be his own action. It would also be considered nagging, which is not good for training. Do this for several minutes, a few times throughout the day. Again, it doesn’t matter where the dog is, as long as he is close enough to you for you to click and treat easily.
Repeat the previous exercise, but add your “come” word after you say his name. Do not expect him to move at this time. You are simply training him to listen to the words for now. As before, do this for a few minutes, several times a day.
TAKING IT ON THE ROAD
Once your dog does well with the exercises above in your house, start taking him out and practicing them on your walks, at the dog park, at the store, parking lots, school yards, downtown or wherever you can go with your dog. Be creative, as the more places you go, the more reliable he will become. If he is too distracted at some of these places, return to where it is less noisy and busy until he responds well, then start gradually adding in more distractions. This will help him become more solid with these exercises.
Continue training regularly. Ideally, you should train five minutes per session, three times a day. After two weeks of steady training, you should be getting extreme focus from your dog. If you are, you both are ready to move on to learn more behaviors. If not, continue to train until he is giving you his undivided attention willingly and eagerly in all types of places.
For more information on clicker training your dog, read Pamela S. Dennison’s book, Click Your Way to Rally Obedience. Even if you are not planning on competing in Rally, her advice is very useful in everyday interactions with your dog.