Clicker training is a technique based in positive reinforcement. The technique involved relies on a distinct sound given to your dog when he has performed a correct behaviour. Animal trainers, especially those who train marine animals, such as whales, and dolphins have been using this method of training for many years, although the method of training is the same, whistles are used to signal to the animal it has made correct responses. The device we use for training dogs is a small plastic holder that encases a thin strip of metal an inch or so long. As you press the piece of metal, it emits a sort of ‘popping’ sound, and it is this sound you are going to use to let your dog know he has given a correct response.
So what are the benefits of clicker training? Well first of all, using your voice when training your dog can sometimes slow down training sessions, or de-motivate your dog, especially if you communicate to your dog that you are frustrated with him when he does not understand what you want him to do. Conversely, the sound of the clicker is neutral, if you will, and more importantly, it is always the same sound. Your dog will be accustomed to hearing this ‘popping’ sound each time he has performed a correct behaviour. There is no physical contact with your dog when using this method. You have no need to place your dog in a sit position for example in order for this method to be effective, all your dog needs to do is guess at the correct behaviour, and then he hears the click.
One of the inhibitors to quick and effective training is incorrect timing, especially when we are new to training a dog. To give an example, when teaching your dog to sit, you need to treat him when his bum is in the floor. However, when using voice commands, and food treats simultaneously, we can become distracted and treat the dog at the wrong time, for example, when your dogs bum comes back off the floor. With using the clicker method however, you can be more precise with your timing, as you have nothing other to do other than watch and wait for your dog to perform the correct behaviour, and then click and give him a treat.
One of the best advantages of using this method is you do not need to give a treat to your dog immediately, the sound of the click tells your dog a treat is on it’s way; the sound bridges the gap if you will, between the dog performing the correct behaviour and receiving his treat. Training in this way is also an advantage when you are not close enough to your dog to treat him, for example, if you are teaching your dog to stay when you are some distance away from him.
Let us now look the basics you will need to know before you can begin clicker training your dog. First of all you need to work out what kinds of treats your dog likes. This will be different for all dogs, for example some dogs are more motivated by food, as with others they prefer petting, or to play a game. Determine which are the most potent rewards for your dog, and you will be off to a good start.
A point to remember about ‘reinforces’ that is the treats your dog likes the most and are therefore more likely to increase the kinds of behaviours you require of him, will vary according to the environment he is in. For example, you dog may be quite willing to work for a food treat in the house, but when in the Local Park, he may prefer a different treats, such as a game of fetch with you.
Let us now look at a practical training situation you can use to start clicker training with your dog. We will use the example of teaching a puppy or older dog to respond immediately to the sound of his name.
First of all arm yourself with your Clicker Heroes 2 and plenty of treats. Begin this exercise in a quiet place, so there will be no distractions. When your dog is NOT looking at you call his name. When your dog begins to turn his head in your direction, click and give him a food treat. Voila. Repeat this exercise a number of times, say around 15 to 20. Continue with this exercise throughout the day, and you will soon find your dog responding faster and faster to the call of his name.
The next step is to build in some distractions, so as you can hone the new behaviour. Use your imagination here, and grade your distractions in order of low, medium, and high. For example, you can wait until something naturally catches your dog’s attention, or when he is playing a game with the children, and so on, then try calling his name, if he doesn’t respond immediately, try clapping your hands, when he looks at you, click and treat.
The next step is to extend the time your dog is looking at you when you have called his name. Now when I say looking at you, I mean actually making contact. Start with 1 second, and then if eye contact is maintained, click and treat, and build up to say 15 or 20 seconds, and so on.
When you’re getting a consistent response, it’s time to change location. Try taking your training to other rooms in the house, or the local park for example. Try to control the level of distractions in each new environment, and be prepared for your dog to slip back to an earlier level of his training. Keep your patience and build his training up from that point again.