Introduction to Clicker Training – September 27, 2012

Many of you have heard of clicker training but may not be familiar with what it actually means. Here is some informatino to familiarize you with this very effective dog training method.

The use of marker signals, like clickers, to train animals has been in use for over 60 years so it’s hardly a new concept. However if you haven’t clicker trained an animal before, it’s brand new to you, so here’s how you can comfortable using a clicker to train your dog.

If you have ever seen the animal acts at places like Sea World and Marine Land, you have seen how effective this sort o training can be. Clicker training has its roots in the science of classical conditioning – think Pavlov’s Dogs. Because it’s based in science, you will find it a fast, effective and efficient method training. While dogs of different breeds can behave differently, no dog is immune to the principles of learning theory and it is using those principles, that we will train our dogs.

Clickers are not ‘magic’ – they are just simple tools. Their main advantage is that they are cheap, easy to carry and use, and they produce a unique sound that can be used as a marker signal. Owners of deaf dogs will often use a small flashlight as a marker signal and marine mammal trainers use whistles. All these markers perform the same task; they provide the animal being trained with information. In order to be an effective training tool, your maker signal needs to meet certain requirements.

Unique: It’s unique signal sounds stands out from the everyday background sounds like human speech.

Consistent: It sounds the same no matter who is training the dog.

Immediate: It needs to pinpoint the exact behavior at the precise moment the dog does it. Mechanical markers are more precise than verbal ones when you want to pinpoint a behavior.

Charging the Clicker

By pairing the ‘click’ marker signal with a reward (small food treats), the dog learns that the sound predicts a treat. This process is called charging the clicker. You click and immediately give the dog a small treat. Repeat 20 times. At this stage we don’t care what your dog is doing; they just have to learn that the click predicts a treat. After one or two sessions your dog will learn to associate the click sound with a treat.

How Does the Clicker Help Me Train My Dog?

When your dog does something you like, you mark it with a click and give the dog a treat. Rewarded behaviors will be repeated so the dog will continue to do things that earned him a click in the past. The clicker communicates the following information:

• I like the behavior you just did
• You have earned a reward for that behavior
• That behavior is now over

For example:
The dog starts to go into a sit position. The dog hears the click as he is sitting and gets a treat. You can either repeat that cycle or move onto a new behavior. If you accidentally click, just feed the dog and start again.

Getting the Behavior to Happen

We use 3 primary methods to get desired behaviors.
• Luring
• Capture
• Shaping

Luring: Holding a food lure in your hand you motion the dog into a position such as sit or down. Luring techniques are useful when first teaching a behavior but they must be faded quickly in order for the dog to truly learn.

Capture: Good trainers are observant. By observing the desired behaviors as they naturally occur and click/treating them, they will occur more often. An example would be clicking as you notice your dog going into a down and then rewarding him.

Shaping: By shaping you would click and treat small portions of the desired final behavior. For example if you were shaping a sit you would click/treat any small movement starting with the dog’s head coming up and the butt heading towards the floor. Finally you get the complete sit behavior and click and treat for that.

Naming the Behavior

With new behaviors that the dog does not know well, we train the behavior first before we call it anything. Naming the behavior (putting the behavior on Cue) is the last piece of the puzzle. Dogs are not verbal and do not understand English! So be patient and get the behavior to happen reliably before giving it a name.

Training a Simple Behavior – “Touch”

Charge up your clicker and then hold your non-clicker hand with a flat palm facing your dog, holding your target hand close to their nose. As they touch their nose to your target hand, C/T. Using the concept of shaping, you may need to start by clicking and rewarding for just initial interest in the target hand, or just turning towards it. Be patient. Eventually your dog will move his nose to your open palm. Once they are freely touching the target hand, only click for actual touches. Repeat 10 times, moving your hand slightly to the left and right and gradually further away by taking a couple of steps. Keep repeating the variations.

Your dog is learning that it’s their actions that are causing you to C/T and the desired action is the nose to palm touch. Your dog has now learned their first clicker behavior and you have had a chance to practice your clicker timing and treat delivery. Once the dog can do several touches with you moving your target hand you can add the verbal cue “Touch” to the behavior. Only say the cur once as the dog is in the process of touching the target hand.

Frequently Asked Questions about Clicker Training

“What is clicker training?”
A clicker is a small device that makes a click sound. It is used to tell the dog that he did the right thing and a treat is coming. When your dog does the right thing, such as open his mouth to drop your sneaker, you click and give him a small tasty treat. Clicker trainers actively try to set up their animals to succeed while ignoring or preventing any undesirable behaviors. The training goals are broken down into small, achievable steps. Punishments (or “corrections”) are not a part of the learning process when using this method.

“Why not just say ‘good’ or ‘yes’ instead of clicking?”Yes you can, but training with a clicker is generally a bit faster.

“Do I need to carry a clicker all of the time?”
No, the clicker is a learning tool and does not need to be used once the dog understands what you are asking him. At that point you can use a verbal reward marker. If you forget your clicker, it’s ok (but less effective) to use a word such as “good”.

“Should I always feed when I click?”Yes! A click is promise. Treats should be small (pea size) and something your dog really likes. If you didn’t mean to click just feed him and start over.

“Won’t all the treats make my dog fat?”Treats should be pea-sized, used in moderation and deducted from the dog’s daily ration. You can use food from his meal to do your inside training, when outside it is vital to use fresh high quality, healthy food such as meat or cheese.

“Can I use other rewards instead of treats?”Yes, and it is very important to do this. I tend to use the clicker and treats in my initial teaching phase and then a verbal marker and all kinds of rewards once the behavior has been learned. It’s also a good idea to ask your dog to “sit” or some other behavior before giving him other things/privileges that he values.

“If I use a clicker and food to train my dog, won’t that mean the dog will only obey if he can see the treat or the clicker?”
This is true only if the trainer makes a mistake of always showing the dog the treat first. To use the clicker method correctly, the dog is rewarded after performing the behavior!

“Shouldn’t my dog listen to me because he loves and respects me and not just for treats?”
Yes and no. You are often asking your dog to do things that he doesn’t want to do and to do them no matter what else is going on. You are going to find you will often need something else besides a great relationship to motivate with and you have two choices, punishment or rewards.

“Can I teach my dog to NOT do things using a clicker?”Yes, you can simply click and treat your dog for abstaining from the behavior you don’t like. Alternatively, you can use the clicker method to teach him to do something to replace the offending behavior. For instance, you can teach him to sit instead of jumping up to greet you. The clicker should not to be used to distract your dog from engaging in problem behaviors.

“What do I do if my dog disobeys a command?”If your dog disobeys you, he has not been trained properly so you are the one to take the responsibility. Your reward is either not good enough or he has not been taught thoroughly. Make the task easier and try again. If you do not have a reward equal to the one he is distracted by, play the numbers game (for example: when your dog responds to the “drop it” cue, frequently return the object after feeding a treat. This way, if he picks up something really gross, he will drop it when you ask even though you couldn’t possibly have anything better!).

“If my dog gets it wrong should I say NO?”
You don’t need to say “NO” because by just not clicking you are telling the dog that is not what you want and for him to try something else. It’s not about the dog always being right, it’s about the dog learning to try.

“How long should my training sessions be and when is the best time to have them?”For puppies and young dogs, 5 minute sessions sprinkled throughout the day are fine. Adult dogs can work for 20-30 minutes at a time. Train before meals and after exercise. Train during TV commercial breaks.

“My dog is afraid of the Clicker”Turn down the volume by putting the clicker in your pocket or wrapping it in a napkin and toss treats when you click. Your dog will get used to the sound.

“What does C/T mean?”Click your clicker and feed your dog a treat.

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Controlling Your Dog at the Door – September 19, 2012

The doorbell provides instant reward for many dogs. When it rings they bound toward it, barking furiously…scaring whoever is at the door. That human response is the reward. It’s even more fun to bark at a postal carrier or delivery person — and watch them run away!

To modify this behavior, or to stop it before it starts, change the reward to one you can control.
• Provide yourself with some rather delicious treats and put a leash on your dog. Have a friend prepare to come to your door many times. When the doorbell rings, pull Duke towards you, make him sit and give him a treat. This may be quite difficult if he’s already discovered how much fun it is to bark at doorbells. It often helps if you start this process at a farther disance from the door.
• Do it again…and again. Don’t yell, scream or hit the dog…just reward the proper behavior. What you’re aiming for is an association between the sound of the doorbell and a treat.
• Once you have that association, take the process one step further. When the doorbell rings, answer it (with Duke on a leash). When he sees the visitor, tell him to sit, and give him a treat. After a few more repetitions and a few more practice sessions, you have a dog who is interested in guests, alerts to their presence, but isn’t out of control.
• Now begin withdrawing the treat, only giving it when he gives you a spectacular performance.
• Alternatively, if you wish the dog to like visitors, provide them with the treat.
So you have this progression:
•The doorbell rings
• You and the dog go to the door
• The dog sits
• You open the door
• You or your visitor gives him a treat and praise
• The dog is released

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Dogs and Children – September 10, 2012

Here are some helpful tips for working with children and dogs. Its not just about teaching your new dog – its about teaching the children as well.

Children and dogs can make great companions for one another. Dogs can help kids learn to respect life and to care responsibly for another being. Children can enrich dogs’ lives by being social companions, friends, and playmates. However, if both are not taught to behave properly around each other, dogs and kids can frighten and injure one another.

Potential Problems Between Children and Dogs
Dogs often view children’s quick and unpredictable movements as either threatening or an invitation to play. Dogs may think of small children as playmates because kids are often at eye level with dogs. Either the child or the dog, or both, may become too excited and out of control during play, and either may be injured or frightened. For example, when children and dogs play chase with each other (not a recommended game!), the dog may jump on the child and knock him down or the child is frightened, falls on the dog, and the dog is hurt.

In addition, children are still learning about their world, and may pull a dog’s tail, ears, or otherwise handle him roughly without realizing they are hurting the dog. Children may throw things at the dog, just as they would throw things at each other, again without realizing this will frighten the dog or even cause the dog to bite them. These examples illustrate why constant parental supervision and guidance is critical to ensure children and dogs can be safe with each other.

Helping Children Be Good to Dogs
Children must be taught how to approach and interact gently with dogs. Tell your children to always ask the dog’s owner if they can pet the dog. They should stand still and let the dog come to them rather than walk into the dog’s space. Dogs communicate through body postures and to dogs, reaching over their heads, facing them, leaning over them and staring are all threatening behaviors.

Instead, a child should allow the dog to sniff a closed hand held close to the body and then scratch the dog under the chin instead of reaching over the dog’s head.

Teach children how to play fetch with dogs and to use toys to play rather than wrestling or playing physical games with the dog. You will also need to train your dog to “drop” a toy when requested. While there is nothing inherently wrong with tug-of-war games (contrary to popular media, this doesn’t cause dogs to be aggressive), you’ll need to gauge the temperament of both your dog and your children to determine if both could play tug without becoming uncontrollable. Your dog mustknow the “drop” or “give” command to play this game and must know to stop when told to do so.

Helping Dogs Tolerate Children
Dogs must learn, through socialization and training, how to be at ease around kids and behave appropriately around them. Socialization to children is easiest and most effective during puppyhood—between 6 and 12 weeks of age—and may prevent adult dogs from being fearful or aggressive toward children.

Under supervision, have children handle the puppy and give the puppy treats. A good trainer can help you teach your puppy not to mouth or nip at children. Older dogs without much experience with children need to have supervised, gentle, careful interactions with them by associating good things with children. To acclimate your dog to being around children, both how close the children are to your dog and what they do, should be controlled.

First, have the kids sit quietly at a distance as you give your dog treats and pet him quietly. Have the children come gradually closer and toss treats as they walk by your dog. Eventually they can offer your dog a treat from an open palm rather than holding the treat in their fingers. Watch your dog’s reactions for signs of fear or threat. Go slowly and
don’t force him to endure more than he is comfortable with. The goal is to make good things happen for your dog when kids are present.

If you see any sign of fear or aggression, you may need professional help to acclimate your dog to children. Talk to your pet professional about help or a referral. Not all dogs can live safely with children. In some cases the dog may need to be rehomed to a family without children.

What Not To Do
Never, ever leave young children and dogs together unsupervised no matter how well behaved you think both of them are. Accidents can happen in the blink of an eye and either the child or the dog can be injured. Even though children and dogs can play together fabulously, your dog is not your child’s personal play toy. You must set reasonable limits for both your children and your dog.

Don’t allow your children to play roughly with your dog, or your dog to be overly excited and out of control with your kids. Don’t use physical punishment for misbehavior on the part of either your children or your dog.

This article comes complements of Drs. Suzanne Hetts and Daniel Q. Estep, Animal Behavior Associates, Inc. and Ms. Lori Holmberg, M.A. Drs. Hetts and Estep are Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists and international award-winning speakers and authors living in Denver, Colorado. For over 25 years they have been helping pet parents understand their pet’s behavior and solve behavior problems

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