Click-Train-Dog

There are probably several ways to teach a dog a new trick.  My favorite is using a clicker.   I started with clicker training when Kirbs was only 6 weeks old with fabulous results.  It’s a conditioning method used for training a dog using a small mechanical noisemaker as a marker for behavior.  This method uses positive reinforcement which means it is reward based.

The clicker is used during the training of a new behavior to let the dog quickly associate the sound of the clicker with the sought after behavior.  Once the behavior is reliably learned using the clicker, then a verbal word such as "sit," or "down" is added to the click.  Once the dog associates the word with the behavior the clicker is no longer needed.

One of the challenges in training a dog is communicating exactly when the dog has done the wanted behavior.   A simple example would be teaching a dog to sit.  At the instant the dog sits, you must let him know that he has done the correct thing.   Saying "good boy!" takes so long to say that your dog might already have moved on to some other behavior.  It is not immediately obvious that the "good boy" is earned at the precise moment of completing a sit.  By the time he realizes he is being praised, he might be scratching or looking for something else to do.

There is also some evidence which suggests that the sound of the clicker is the kind of stimulus, like a bright flash of light or a loud, sudden sound, that quickly reaches the brain.  Clicker trainers often see rapid learning, long retention and a "joy" response to the sound of the click in the learning animal.

Tasks learned with the clicker are retained for years with no additional practice after the initial learning has taken place.  This is probably due to the fact that the dog participates fully in the learning process and applies itself to learning by trial and error rather than acting out of habit or a momentary response to a situation.  It has been proven time after time that clicker–trained animals become great problem solvers, develop confidence, and perform their work enthusiastically. 

One concern pet parents may have is that their dog will become fat with clicker training because they get too many treats.  First, you should be using very small treats, about the size of a pea, that can be eaten instantly.  Also food is not the only treat that can be used in training.  Use anything your dog is willing to work for in the current situation such as toys, attention, or the opportunity to do something he wants to do.   Kirby trains never knowing when he is going to get a treat because I do it randomly.  He might get three treats in a row, or one every now and then.  It’s kind of like a slot machine.  You keep dropping those quarters in because you will hit something every now and then.  Something I’ve learned about Kirby is that he is very attentive and willing to learn for about fifteen to twenty minutes, then he is done.  He wants to play or rest and refuses any more training.  I take that cue and stop. 

The first step in clicker training is to teach your dog that the clicker sound means that he will get a reward by "charging" or "loading" the clicker.  To do this click the clicker and immediately give your dog a small tasty treat.  Some dogs tend to learn the association much more quickly than others.  Progress can be tested by waiting until the dog's attention is elsewhere and then clicking. If the dog immediately looks toward you as though expecting a reward, it is likely he has made the association.

After that, use the clicker to mark desired behaviors as they occur.  At the exact instant the dog performs the desired behavior, click and promptly deliver a reward.  One key to clicker training is the timing.  Clicking too early or too late rewards and reinforces whatever behavior is occurring at that instant.  The saying goes, "you get what you click for."

A fun behavior to start with is the nose-touch where the dog learns to touch an object with its nose.  That behavior can then be used to perform useful tasks or interesting tricks such as flipping a light switch or ringing a bell to go outside.  One of my cats loves to open all of the bottom kitchen cabinet doors after I go to bed.  Kirby is learning to close those doors in the morning!

Training the nose-touch begins with getting your dog to touch an object.   Use a guided method such as placing a dab of peanut butter on a small plate or plastic target.  Another method is shaping where the target is placed in easy reach and the dog is rewarded each time he moves in the target's direction or actually touches it.

Training with a clicker is not only fun but is also a great tool for bonding with your dog.  Use roughly fifteen minute segments throughout the day clicker training your dog a new behavior.  Then use those new behaviors in everyday occurrences.  For example, sit before going outside, down before a meal.  Before long your dog will be the smartest dog on the block.