Clicker Training for Dogs (cont.)

Clicker Training Basics

Once your dog seems to understand the connection between the click and the treat, you're ready to get started. Keep these guidelines in mind to ensure your clicker training success:

  1. Click just once, right when your pet does what you want him to do. Think of it like pressing the shutter of a camera to take a picture of the behavior.
  2. Remember to follow every click with a treat. After you click, deliver the treat to your pet's mouth as quickly as possible.
  3. It's fine to switch between practicing two or three behaviors within a session, but work on one behavior at a time. For example, say you're teaching a dog to sit, lie down and raise his paw. You can do 10 repetitions of sit and take a quick play break. Then do 10 repetitions of down, and take another quick break. Then do 10 repetitions of shake, and so on.
  4. Animals, like children, have short attention spans. Keep training sessions short (15 minutes or less), and stop before you or your pet gets tired of the game.
  5. End training sessions on a good note, when your pet has succeeded with what you're working on. If necessary, ask him to do something you know he can do well at the end of a session.
  6. Some trainers like to click and then deliver a “jackpot”-a bunch of treats-when their pet has accomplished a particularly challenging task. Big efforts deserve big rewards!

Three Ways to Get Behavior

To click and reward a behavior you like, you first need to find a way to get your animal to do that behavior. Clicker trainers usually use three ways to accomplish this: catching, shaping and luring. Before starting a training session, decide which method will work best for the behavior you want, and then take a few moments to think through the steps you'll take to get accomplish your goal.

Catching

“Catching” means that you catch your pet in the act of doing the behavior you want. It's the perfect method for training behaviors that your pet already does on his own, like sitting, lying down and maybe rolling over on grass. For example, if you want to train your dog to lie down, you can stand in your living room with your dog and just wait. After a little while, your dog will probably decide to lie down and get comfortable. The instant his body hits the floor, click and toss a treat on the ground a few feet in front of him. He'll have to stand up to take the treat, so after he eats it you'll be ready to start over again. Continue the sequence of waiting for your dog to lie down on his own, and then clicking and tossing a treat the moment he does. With repetition, your dog will eventually look at you and throw himself to the ground to earn his treat.

Shaping

With “shaping,” you gradually build a new behavior by clicking and rewarding a series of small steps toward it. Shaping is a good method for training new behaviors (or a series of behaviors called a “chain”) that your pet doesn't already do on his own naturally-like raising a paw in the air, retrieving a ball or going to a specific spot to lie down. You start by rewarding the first small behavior that begins your pet on his journey toward the complete behavior. When he's mastered that first step, you ask a little more of him-require him to do the next small step to earn his click and treat. For example, to get a dog to raise his paw, you might start by clicking and treating when he shifts his weight off one paw slightly. Once he's shifting his weight smoothly over several repetitions, you delay clicking until you see him lift his front paw off the floor just one inch. When he's good at tiny paw raises, delay your click again and require him to raise his paw another inch or two higher to earn his click and treat. By reinforcing each tiny step as if it were the ultimate goal, your dog will think that learning is fun and will soon be performing the goal behavior with enthusiasm.

Luring

“Luring” involves using a treat like a magnet or guide to get your pet into a desired position. The food lure (a small piece of tasty food) is held right in front of your pet's nose and then moved while he follows it. For example, to lure a dog into a down position, hold a piece of food in front of his nose and then slowly draw it straight down in front of his chest to the floor. The food will work like a magnet, drawing your dog's nose and then his body downward. As his elbows touch the floor, click and treat for the down. After some practice, you can just use the hand motion to prompt your dog to lie down. Make the same movement as before, but with no treat in your hand. Over many repetitions, you can gradually make this hand signal smaller and shorter. Eventually, your dog will lie down when you point to the ground. Lure-and-reward training is often quicker and more efficient than catching or shaping to get and reward certain behaviors.

Adding the Cue

Whether you've used catching, shaping or luring to get a behavior you want, your next step is to add a cue or command. If you've used luring, you'll know you're ready when your pet consistently does the behavior you want as soon as you give your hand signal. If you've used catching or shaping, you can add the cue when your pet is confidently offering the behavior over and over, without any other behaviors in between.

  1. First say the cue word you'd like to use. (Say it only once-don't nag!)
  2. Then ask or wait for the behavior. (Use your hand signal to prompt your pet if you were luring. If you used catching or shaping, you'll just wait after you give the cue for your pet to offer the behavior.)
  3. Click and treat the instant your pet performs the behavior.

Good timing is essential. Be sure to say your cue before your pet does the behavior you want, not at the same time. If you practice the steps above in order, your pet will eventually learn what the cue means.