Editor’s note: If you read the CATALYST, chances are better than average that you’ve got a dog. So here’s a new monthly column on how to raise a trustworthy, calm and happy canine. (And yes, Johanna says, you can teach an old dog new tricks.)Okay, so you have gone to the store and seen clickers on the shelves. You may be asking yourself, “What are these?” A clicker can be a great tool to train animals with fun and rewards. When you train with a clicker, you teach your dog without force. (Clicker training has also been used with cats, fish and birds.) It is a positive technique. When your dog hears the clicking sound, he knows that he has performed the correct behavior. Therefore, he is more likely to perform the behavior again. Clicker training is a great way to teach your dog tricks and obedience commands. It will enable you to train sequences of behaviors such as “pick up and put away your toys!” You can also use clicker training to solve behavioral problems such as aggression, excessive barking or jumping, but in those cases it is best to consult a professional dog trainer. It is easy to inadvertently reward the bad behavior with inappropriate clicker timing. A professional can also suggest the best alternative behaviors to instill to lessen these behavioral problems.Starting clicker training is simple. First, you teach your dog that “click” means “treat.” You want your dog to anticipate the “click,” because he will know a treat is coming. Give your dog a treat immediately after clicking one time. It does not matter what the dog is doing when you click. Every time you click, the dog gets a treat.
Make sure that you click at random times and unpredictable intervals. Practice clicking in a variety of rooms inside your house and also outside.
In this beginning stage of training, do not ask your dog to perform any commands when you click.
To reinforce the association between click and food, practice clicking and treating for three – seven days. When your dog’s ears go up (similar to a “food begging” expression), he probably understands that “click” means a yummy treat is following.
Next, train your dog a new behavior and click when your dog performs the correct response. (For aid on how to train obedience behaviors, read “Clicking with Your Dog,” by Peggy Tillman.) As before, every time you click you should give your dog a treat. Once your dog has learned the new command, you will no longer have to click. However, you will still occasionally reward your dog for performing the behavior.
It’s important to carry the clicker because it makes the reward immediate. You can click immediately when the behavior is performed. You will then have about two seconds to reward your dog.
A clicker helps with distance behaviors. When you ask your dog to sit when he is ten feet away from you, you need to be able to reward him before he begins to play with other dogs. The clicker allows you to mark the sitting behavior as soon as your dog sits. Your dog will know a treat is coming and will most likely run toward you or wait for you to come to him to receive his treat.
People talk constantly, and eventually, dogs ignore some of the chatter. A clicker is easily identifiable, and the dog knows at once that he has done something right when he hears it.
Clicking is fast. Speaking a word takes more than a second. A click is less than a second, making it much easier to mark a behavior that lasts for a split second.
Common clicker training problems
Many people click after the behavior instead of simultaneously with it. Practice your timing, and only train when you can focus 100% on your dog and your reaction time.
Coordinating the clicker, the treats and the leash can be difficult. Buy a treat bag, and only have a treat in your hand when rewarding your dog. You can wrap the leash around your waist or step on the leash, being careful it does not slip from under your foot. You can attach the clicker to your wrist with a wrist band.
Leaving the clicker at home when walking your dog is a mistake. When distractions are high, it is easier to train commands with a clicker. If you keep your clicker in your treat bag, it will be easy to remember.
Large treats will satiate your dog quickly. Pea to dime sized treats are perfect. Then your dog will crave more.
APDT.com: an excellent list of positive trainers all over the country who may use clicker training.
Clickertraining.com: books, DVDs and videos.
Bake Your Own Dog Treats!
Making your own treats for clicker training is a great way to give your dog proper nutrition and save money. Here is one simple recipe:
PUMPKIN DOGGIE COOKIES
12 cups oatmeal or quick oats
3 cups whole wheat flour
3/4 cup sunflower, fish, or olive oil
2/3 cup honey
1/2 cup molasses
2 cups milk
1 large can solid packed pumpkin
4 ripe mashed bananas
Place all ingredients into a large bowl. Mix together with your hands. Pat onto two large baking sheets with 3/4 inch sides. Bake at 325° for 50-60 minutes. Cut into dime-sized pieces.
Johanna Teresi is a professional dog trainer and owner of Four Legged Scholars LLC. fourleggedscholars.com.