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How To Keep Your Dog Mentally Stimulated

Remember: Bored dogs cause problems. If you don’t keep your dog’s mind stimulated, chances are that he’ll find activities to stimulate his mind, himself. And you won’t like those activities. A dog that is mentally stimulated on a daily basis is a happy dog. And happy dogs don’t cause dog problems. Here’s a quick list of how to keep your dog mentally stimulated:

1. Exercise. Lots of exercise. If you can incorporate exercise with another activity such as playing, “Find the ball,” or doing some agility exercises, then that’s even better.

2. Brain teaser toys. There are a number of cool toys that actually challenge your dog’s mind. For example, one of the more popular ones is the “Buster Cube,” a plastic cube that releases a pellet of food, every third or fourth time the Cube is rolled over.

3. Small rituals done at the same time of day, every day. For example; feeding time, grooming, walks, “cookie” time, car trips around town, etc.

4. Dogs like to work. Teach your dog to bring in the newspaper, carry mail back from the mailbox or to walk out with you when you take the trash out. (Whenever I go through the drive-thru window at McDonald’s, Forbes–my dog–gets to carry the trash bag to the trash receptacle when we’re finished. Sound silly, right? But the dog loves it!)

5. Do obedience training with your dog. Obedience training requires your dog to use his brain and think. Knowing that he will be praised for making the right decision and corrected for making the wrong decision (and allowed the opportunity to make the right decision again) instills a sense of responsibility in your dog and demands that he use his noggin. Remember: Dogs are bred to work. They’ve been blessed with super-human instincts and drives and they need an outlet for those drives.

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Waiting at Doors

It is a valuable effort for both safety and impulse control to teach your dog to wait at doors vs. charging outside every time the door is open.

Definition: The dog should wait in an area of your choice, but does not have to freeze in that position (as in the Stay). For example, if you tell your dog to wait at the front door while you exit, the dog can move about in the room, but cannot go through the door.

Phase One:
• Begin with the dog sitting or standing in front of a closed door. Stand between the door and the dog, holding onto the leash and the door handle. Before the door is opened, give the cue “Wait” and the hand signal for “Stay” (fingers pointed down, palm toward the dog’s face).
• Now open the door a crack. The dog will probably begin charge through the door in delight! As he does, bar the door with your body and/or GENTLY close the door in the dog’s face. Repeat the sequence until the dog does not try to barge through the door. You don’t have to say anything negative; your presence in his way is saying all that is necessary. No treat is required in this exercise — just going through the door is enough for most dogs!
• Once your dog is waiting at the door, you step through. If he tries to follow, your body is back blocking the entrance, or the door again closes (gently) in his face. Put him back, and tell him “Wait” again. There is no need to put him back in the exact spot.
• Go through the door. When the dog is on one side and you are on the other, count to five slowly to yourself. Then release the dog – he can go through the door!

Phase Two:
Some doors, such as car doors, front doors, and perhaps the back door, should be designated “permanent” wait doors. This means that the dog is taught not to go through them at any time unless someone is there to give him permission. To teach, make sure the dog understands Wait. Then, without giving the command, open the door and start to step through. When the dog goes with you, tell him “uh-uh,” and block the door. Repeat until the dog understands he has to wait to go through this particular door even though no command has been given. When it’s obvious he understands the concept, step through the door, wait a few seconds, then release him.
Note: This exercise uses something called “natural consequences,” a wonderful tool for some behaviors. When the door closes in his face, the dog learns that if he does something you tell him not to, the consequences can be memorable.

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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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Introduction to Clicker Training

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: Its 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.

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