Tips and Education
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Clicker training is a science-based way to communicate with your pet that has been used since the 1960's. It's easier to learn than standard command-based training. You can clicker train any kind of animal, of any age. Puppies love it. Old dogs learn new tricks. You can clicker-train cats, birds, horses, fish and other pets as well. Here are some simple tips to get you started.
Understand positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is a method of training based around giving rewards for good behavior, instead of punishment for bad behavior. Clicker training is a kind of positive reinforcement training, because you do not punish or physically control the dog. Instead, you offer rewards for good behavior.
Understand how clicker training works. The "clicker" is a small noisemaker that makes a distinctive "click" sound when the metal tab is pressed. The clicker is intended to tell your dog when he or she does something correctly. Once you"ve trained your dog to associate the clicker with rewards, he or she will quickly learn that when she performs a behavior and you click, (s)he will receive a reward. This means that your dog will be an active participant in the training process, instead of just being forced into position.
Remember that the clicker is not the reward. The clicker is intended to mark which behavior is correct, not to reward a behavior. You"ll have to reward your dog with a treat after you click, because the treat is the reward.
The advantage of clicker training is that it allows you to be more precise in your timing than if you have to say "Good!" Additionally, the clicker makes a very distinctive sound that dogs will easily recognize, and that you will not use in casual conversation.
Load the clicker. "Loading the clicker" is how you train your dog to associate the click with a reward. To load the clicker, simply click the clicker and give your dog a treat. If you repeat this frequently, your dog will soon learn to associate the click with a reward. Don't worry if your dog is initially startled by the click - once he or she realizes treats come after the click (s), he will adjust to the noise.
When you clicker train, use very small treats. You'll want to use a soft treat that your pet can quickly eat. For dogs, you can use thinly sliced hot dog, small pieces of cheese, or very small training treats.
Some trainers recommend portioning out what your pet eats each day so that you do not feed your pet too much. Try working with your pet before he/she is fed. A full pet may not be as interested in working for food. Eventually, the dog's mealtime can become a session of rehearsing commands it already knows, or while teaching new things.
Practice your timing. Correct timing is essential to clicker training: remember, the click marks the correct behavior. For example, if you're trying to train your dog to sit, clicking after your dog has already gotten up from the sitting position is going to train him/her to stand on command! Try to click during the desired behavior, not after it is completed. Don't be dismayed if your pet stops the behavior when it hears the click - the click is also your dog"s signal to stop the behavior, like saying "Good job, that'll do!"
Before you start training your dog using clicker training, practice your timing. Ask a friend to bounce a tennis ball in front of you. Every time the tennis ball hits the ground, click your clicker (if you've already started loading the clicker, do this out of earshot of your dog).
"Catch" correct behaviors. Instead of using physical force to put your dog in a certain position, you can wait until you see your dog performing the action you want to reward. For example, if you want to train your dog to lie down on command, wait until you see your dog lying on the ground. You can then click and treat.
Another way of getting correct behaviors is to gently move your dog into the correct position. You may coax or lure the animal into a movement or position, but don't push, pull, or hold it: let the animal discover how to do the behavior on its own. If you want to train your dog to sit, for example, hold the treat above your dog's nose. As (s)he moves up his nose, (s)he should end up sitting on the floor. However, you should not harm your dog to get the correct behavior - e.g., yanking on the leash to stop pulling, or using a choke collar to train your dog to sit - as this will often result in fear and confusion, and will not help you bond with your dog.
Understand how to use shaping. If you are trying to train your dog to fetch a beer from the fridge, for example, you don't expect your dog to get a beer for you on the first try. Instead, train small steps at a time - training your dog to open the fridge, to hold a beer can, etc. - and eventually create the entire behavior. This is known as "shaping" a behavior.
To better understand how to use shaping, try playing the shaping game. Find a willing friend, and tell the friend that you are going to teach him/her to perform an action using shaping. Decide on a behavior (but don't tell the friend what it is!) and ask your friend to walk around and do random things in the hopes that one behavior is correct. Your job is to recognize small behaviors that you can build up to create the complete behavior.
For example, you can "train" your friend to flip a switch. Start by clicking the clicker when your friend walks in the direction of the switch. Continue rewarding him or her for walking towards the switch, until s/he reaches the wall. Next, reward him or her for touching the wall. Soon your friend will realize that flipping the switch is the correct behavior - click and reward her!
Remember not to punish your friend (or your dog) if she or he performs a wrong action. If your subject does something wrong, just ignore it and wait until (s)he does something correct to reward, helping him or her if necessary.
Learn how to add a cue to a behavior. Once you have successfully shaped a behavior, you"ll have to learn how to add a cue to the behavior. To do this, simply say the cue after you click. Depending on your dog, after you've repeated this a number of times, tell your dog the cue. If your dog does not immediately do the correct behavior, help your dog (e.g., tapping the ground if you're trying to make your dog lie down).
Remember to use the cues consistently. For example, you might train your dog to both lie down on command and jump off a couch. Instead of using the cue "down" for both, try using the command "down" for lying down and "jump" for going off the couch, or "lie" for lying down and "down" for going off the couch.
You can also use visual cues, such as a raised hand for "sit." Both can work well, as long as you remember to be consistent!
Begin clicker training your dog. Once you've learned the basic concepts of clicker training, you can start training your dog. A good choice is to try training your dog to look at you, which will help you keep your dog's attention on you when you train.
Sit in front of your dog and hold the clicker in your left hand and a treat in your right hand. Spread out your arms so they reach to either side of you. Your dog will most likely look at your right hand, but ignore this. After a while, your dog will probably look towards you - immediately click and give your dog the treat.
Repeat this exercise a few times, and then say "Watch!" or another cue when your dog looks at you. Continue training until you can focus your dog"s attention on you by telling him or her "Watch!"
Up the ante by requiring your dog to perform the behavior in a distracting environment - for example, in the parking lot of a dog park, or in a room with other people and eventually other dogs.
Fix bad behaviors by clicking good behaviors. For example, instead of yelling at your dog for barking, try clicking the clicker when your dog is quiet. You can gradually desensitize your dog to the sound of knocking and the doorbell, people coming in the house, and strangers knocking at the door using clicker training. Another idea is to train your dog to heel by clicking when the leash goes slack, instead of yanking on the leash when your dog pulls ahead of you. Remember that you should never punish your dog: clicker training is supposed to be fun and a bonding experience for both of you.
Keep practice sessions short. Dogs have short attention spans - especially puppies! - and you"ll get the most out of your training if you train for five minutes three times a day, instead of training without break for an hour a day. You can also liven up training sessions by including a game of fetch or tug-of-war. If your dog is frustrated with a new behavior or isn't making progress, throw in a few tricks he or she knows well to keep the treats flowing. Your dog will be upset and bored if (s)he doesn't get rewards for his/her work - remember to use the shaping technique and keep goals easy and achievable.
Stay calm and positive when you train. Your job is to be your dog's coach and cheer him along - don't get angry or frustrated. If you start feeling annoyed or upset, take a breather or play a game with your dog.
If you are not making progress with a particular behavior, you are probably clicking too late. Accurate timing is important. Get someone else to watch you, and perhaps to click for you, a few times.
Have fun! Enjoy bonding with your dog, learning more about clicker training, and - of course - showing off to your friends. Stay positive and have fun clicker training your dog!