Clickers make training quick and fun

Anyone can do it.

What is clicker training?

Clicker training means using a sound (a click) to communicate with your dog. It marks your dog’s correct behavior the moment he does it.  Essentially the moment your dog does what you want him to do—like a sit or a down—you immediately click and give him a treat. This gives your dog instant, specific feedback. Dogs learn much faster with a clicker (up to 45% faster) and it makes training fun.

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How does it work?

It is fabulously simple. First, we teach the dog that the click means he has earned a treat. Then we use the click to tell the dog when he has done something we like. The click becomes a predictor of a reward.

Now before you dismiss the idea of carrying around a tool with you, I want you to know that it is only used to teach new behaviors. Once your dog knows the skill you can fade out the clicker, so it’s not a forever tool. My dogs, for example, only see the clicker when I decide to teach a new trick. When I take it out of the drawer they get very excited. It predicts fun and treats.

In this video, Laurent is rewarding Luna every time she looks at him. Since he clicks the moment Luna gives him eye contact, she is getting precise and instant feedback which means that she will learn this so much faster. Imagine if no clicker was used. By the time the treat got to Luna she would no longer be looking so she would not immediately associate the treat with the eye contact. So much slower to teach…

How to start with your dog: charging the clicker

This means teaching your dog that click means treat.  To do this we will classically condition the dog to associate the sound of the click with him or her receiving a treat.

Step 1. Grab a handful of really yummy treats cut into small pieces.

Step 2. Every time you click, give your dog a treat (be careful not to click and treat at the same time; the treat must follow the click, not precede or coincide with it). To begin, repeat this 20 times in a row.

Step 3. Do this standing up, sitting down, while moving about, indoors, outdoors. Basically, make sure your dog understands that the click means treat in all situations.

Step 4. Do the exercise a few times a day for a 20 treats at a time until when you click you notice that your dog is eagerly anticipating the treat.

Good Mechanical Skills

Don’t give away that a treat is coming except with the click. For example, be careful not to reach for a treat, point the clicker toward the dog, or reach toward him with the treat before you click. This is distracting and can slow learning. After you treat, always bring your hand up to a neutral position (at your navel or behind your back) and keep it still so your dog does not get distracted and can learn quicker. Train yourself to insert a count or a word before you hand over the treat: Click. Count to yourself, one-one-thousand. Treat.

Watch the video to see how this is done. Caela is doing a great job with timing.

Say “Yes”

You can use a novel word, such as “Yes!” in place of the clicker. You would pair it and then use it the same way as the clicker.  According to research, using a word to mark a behavior is effective but not nearly as effective as the clicker. You want to use a word that your dog does not hear all the time. “Good boy”, for example, is not the best choice.

Clicker rules

  • Click only once.
  • If you click you must treat even if you have clicked in error (we call that a freebie!).
  • The clicker is not a remote control. Don’t use it to call your dog to you.
  • Click during the desired behavior, not after it is completed. For example, when you call your dog to you click while she is headed your way, not after she has gotten to you and stopped or sat. The timing of the click is crucial. Give the treat after the click; the timing of the treat is not as important but try to get it there within a couple of seconds. If you’re not sure when to click, think of it like taking a picture of your dog at the exact moment he does the behavior you want. Snap! You got it.
  • Only click once for each desired behavior. Multiple clicks will be confusing to your dog. If you want to express special enthusiasm, increase the number of treats, not the number of clicks.
  • Click when your dog does something you like. Practice with something easy that the dog is likely to do on his own. (Ideas: sit; come toward you; touch your hand with his nose.)

In this video I am teaching Decker the beginning of a trick. He already knows how to hand touch (touch his nose to my hand); now he is learning to target a piece of tape, first in my hand and then stuck to a wall. Soon it will be placed on an open cabinet door or an open mailbox, and he will easily learn to close the door by pushing it with his nose. Eventually the tape is faded and a cue is added.

Easy peasy and so much fun! Your dog will enthusiastically work with you and learning is a snap. Happy training!

First Impressions Count

Socialization is the key to creating a confident dog. Here’s how to do it right.

You’ve probably witnessed the dog on walks that lunges or barks ferociously at every dog he or she sees. Or maybe you own that dog. That poor dog is stressed and fearful. One of the causes of this kind of reactivity is lack of early socialization.

Dogs see the world as safe, good, dangerous, bad, or neutral. You want your puppy to see the world as safe and good. The time in your puppies life when he is most open to novel experiences is before 18 weeks of age. This is the time to get him out there, so go! But do it right.

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Puppies, like children, need to be taught appropriate play skills. This is from our Ideal Puppy class.

Here are 3 great tips.

Tip 1: Use Great Rewards

Pair new experiences with something your puppy loves like food or play. Figure out what his favorite treats are and reserve them for creating strong positive associations.

Bryn- Home Depot
Puppy Bryn is having fun at the hardware store.

Tip 2: Ace The First Encounter

First impressions count. If your puppy’s first encounter with something new doesn’t go well, it takes a lot of work to change his mind. Always try to make first experiences particularly rewarding. If your puppy is not enjoying the experience, he will show it by turning away or trying to leave, tucking his tail, cowering,  pulling his ears back against his head, and/or averting his gaze. If this happens help him by giving him more distance or leaving the situation.

Bryn and goats-crop
This is Bryn’s first experience with goats!

Tip 3: Timing Is Everything

You should reward your puppy as soon as something new happens, but it’s important that the new thing happens first. For example:

  1. You’re out with your puppy and pass your neighbor’s house.
  2. You see your neighbor about to press the garage door opener.
  3. You wait for her to press the button.
  4. As the sound begins and your puppy’s ears perk up, you treat him with yummy food bites and use a happy, cheerful voice.

The association we want your puppy to make: Garage door noise = Good things happen.

Applying The 3 Rules

New place. Give your puppy plenty of time to explore and get comfortable. Try to get him to play with a toy, chase you, or toss some yummy treats on the floor for him to find.

New person. Ask all kinds of strangers and children to give your puppy a treat before petting him. If your puppy is shy or unsure of himself, have people toss a few treats on the ground or have them stand at a distance while you calmly feed your puppy. You can also teach your puppy to sit (or any cute trick) so you can have people ask your puppy to do something. That stops them from immediately trying to pet your puppy, which can be overwhelming for him. Once your puppy is comfortable, go ahead and let him interact with the new person at his own pace.

New dog. Not every new dog is guaranteed to play with your puppy, thereby giving your puppy a good experience. That means the reinforcement for meeting a new dog needs to come from you and the best time is directly after your puppy sees the new dog. Get in the habit of rewarding your puppy for simply looking in the direction of another dog. Not only will you create a positive association, but you will help prevent all-too-common behavior problems in adult dogs like barking at other dogs while on leash, barking at dogs (or people) when behind a fence, etc.

For how long? This is not just for baby puppies. Continue to build your dog’s confidence through social maturity, which in most cases is 2 to 3 years of age. Is your dog not a young puppy? It’s not too late to get started building more confidence.

Your puppy should be exposed, in a positive and safe way, to as many experiences as possible. Here is a scavenger hunt you can play with your dog. Please share your experiences with us.

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(Thanks, Robin Bennett!)

 

Tug-of-War: Do it right and keep it fun

Tug can build impulse control and awesome obedience skills!

First, forget the myth

For decades, dog owners have been told never to play tug-of-war with their dogs because it increases aggression in the dog. This isn’t true—every study done refutes the notion. Playing tug-of-war doesn’t turn your dog into a predator; he already is one. The game simply provides a safe and enjoyable outlet for the behavior.

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Why it’s a good idea

Tug-of-war is:

  • A tremendous cardio workout and brainteaser for your dog.
  • A great way to teach your dog to listen to commands even when excited and distracted.
  • Exercise that can happen indoors, outdoors, in short sessions, and with little space.
  • Likely to lessen any behavior problems resulting from under-stimulation and boredom.
  • A potent motivator for snappy obedience.

The caveat

Tug-of-war, however, should be correctly trained and always played by the rules. Remember: Control the game and you control the dog. Follow the method and rules laid out here, and you are in for a great time with your dog:

If your dog hoards the tug toy, show zero interest. If, when your dog “wins,” i.e. you let go of the tug toy, he leaves and hoards the toy, play hard to get. Never chase your dog or get into a battle involving speed or agility. You won’t win and psych-outs work much better, so pretend you couldn’t care less.

Notice and reward steps in the right direction. If your dog tries to re-engage you in the game by dropping the toy in front of you, praise him and try again. The goal is for your dog to learn that the tug toy is infinitely more fun when brought to life by you than when dead. Patience is key here, especially with inveterate hoarders.

Before playing tug-of-war

Put the release on command.

Decide on a release command such as “Out,” “Give,” or “Drop.” Before getting your dog excited about playing tug for the first time, practice some low-key exchanges with him. The sequence is:

  1. Give the cue to release
  2. Your dog releases
  3. Give a food reward
  4. Give the cue to re-take the toy

Teach this: Start by trading for a treat. Give your release cue first and then hold a treat at your dog’s nose; when your dog releases the toy he gets the treat. After enough repetitions, your dog will begin to release the toy after you have cued his release and before you have brought out the treat. Immediately reward this great behavior! At first the reward will be the treat, but over time the reward will be another fun game of tug.

Every game has penalties.

During actual tug-of-war games, apply the following penalties:

A 30-second time out. For any failure to release the tug toy, stop play and leave the room for 30 seconds.

End the game. For a game misconduct like grabbing your clothes or your hand with his mouth, stop the game altogether. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this was an accident. Dogs can have exquisite control and I don’t believe that mistakes happen often.

When your dog knows, loves, and is hooked on tug-of-war, ending the game abruptly is by far the most potent motivator against rule breaking.

The 4 tug-of-war rules.

1. Your dog has to release the tug toy on command.  Of course, you have thoroughly trained the release command, so any failure to  comply should result in a stop play penalty.

2. The game only happens when your dog is sitting and you say so. Designate a tug toy as the one-and-only tug toy, reserved for this game only. Decide on a take command such as “get it!”  Then teach your dog that he has to sit before being given permission to get the toy.

The easiest way to train this rule is to practice it while playing. Wait for or ask for a sit. Show your dog the toy. If your dog gets up or goes for the toy before you have released him with his “take it” cue, the toy goes out of his reach or behind your back. Stand neutrally, quietly and calmly and wait for him to sit again. Once he has, release him to get the toy and have a short fun tugging game. When he gets good at the game, add additional time he has to wait before he’s released to get it, and then add distractions, such as waving the toy near him or slapping it on the floor while he remains in the sit and waits patiently with anticipation and excitement.

This rule infraction is extremely common in tug-of-war games, so don’t sweep it under the rug. If your dog continually goes for another retake before being invited, or is extremely aroused and is jumping all over you instead of sitting and waiting, end the game for a short period of time.

Building impulse control, where your dog is reinforced for making a good choice, is   an important part of the “It’s Your Choice” lifetime program for your dog.  (Check out this previous blog article).

3. The game stops often for obedience breaks and calm behavior. Tug-of-war is one of the great recyclable rewards for obedience training. Alternate back and forth between the tug game and obedience to spot-check your control over your dog during the game and to teach him obedience when he is excited and distracted. This also teaches him to go from high arousal to a calmer behavior, which is an important concept for dogs to learn. Every initiation of the tug game is a potent reward you can use to select a particularly nice obedience response. Your dog will try fanatically hard to improve his obedience to get you to restart the game. For example, try using it as a valuable reinforcer for exercises such as coming when  called. What’s more, through repeated association over time, the two activities will blur in your dog’s mind, eventually making him love obedience training.

4. Zero tolerance of sloppy jaw control. Your dog will sometimes make contact with your hand or other part of you. Sometimes he might even latch on to you or your clothing as though you were a tug toy. Don’t let this go unnoticed. Screech “Ouch!” even if it didn’t hurt and abruptly end the game. This is game misconduct every time. Dogs can control their jaws with great precision if given a reason to do so. (Don’t use the loud “Ouch!” if it excites your dog more.)  With this rule you not only remind your dog of the sensitivity of human skin and the great necessity to keep his jaws off people at all times, you have also trained this while he is excited.

That’s it. Now have fun with it.

If your dog isn’t breaking any of the rules, let him get as excited as he wants. This includes head shaking, strong tugging, and growling. But maintain the rules through constant practice and testing.