Why Clicker Training?
Dog training should be a delight, a real treat to the both of you, dog as well as handler. We are clicker trainers, because we believe that it is a smart, efficient and fun way of training.
We never blame our dog if it fails to do what we ask of it. Along the line of learning, we have suddenly demanded too much. If the dog does not perform as intended we have simply not taught it properly to this level. This is why we design all our learning in small steps, one careful detail at a time. Eventually these components are joined together into a unit. Brick by brick, room by room, floor by floor – eventually we have constructed the whole house – e.g. all parts of a field trial, nicely performed en suite.
We always look for Good Behavior to reward. Because what happens when the dog gets rewarded? Naturally it will want to repeat the same behavior, so as to receive a reward again.
We never expose the dogs to situations we know are too difficult for them. Therefore it is easy for us to discern when we have actually made the task too difficult for the dogs – namely when they fail to succeed.
We never subject our dogs to physical or verbal corrections, i.e. what the dog may experience as unpleasant.
Clicker training is really not so much about the clicker itself, the little mechanical noise-device; it rather concerns the approach to training – so let us refer to it as clicker philosophy. So how do we apply this philosophy in real life? Well, that is what the book Retrieving for All Occasions is all about, so if you want to calm your curiosity you had better read the book. 😉
A few useful tips if you have never tried clicker training before
First and foremost! First of all you have to make your mind up to eliminate any ingredient in your training containing unpleasantness. You can never gain access to all the advantages of clicker philosophy if you continue to correct your dog physically or verbally, thereby making it feel uneasy. The very foundation of clicker philosophy is positive reinforcement of the dog’s own initiative, so it will not work if you one day encourage the dog’s initiative, and then the next day scold it for being ingenious. So first, make sure that you really want to give this method a whole-hearted try.
If you have an unspoiled puppy it is an easy thing to clicker train it. Take the puppy, a clicker and a bowl of treats (out of reach for the puppy). Observe the puppy, and click any certain behavior – the first thing the puppy does, e.g. moving a paw, backing up or sniffing your hand. Every click is followed up with a treat. Initially we do not want more than 5 seconds to elapse between the clicks, and with a puppy six clicks is enough before taking a break for a bit of play. Setting an egg timer for 30 seconds is a good way to remind you not to keep on too long. Then you click again, for ANY behavior the puppy presents.
Another way of introducing clicker training is click + treat, click + treat, about ten times, without the puppy doing anything at all. This is merely to fortify that click always equals treat. When your pup knows this, you wait a while, and then start clicking a certain behavior. Pretty soon the puppy will understand, and after only a few repetitions it will repeat the behavior you clicked. (Do remember the time limit!)
If you do not have an unspoiled puppy, but an older dog who – to boot – has learnt that showing initiative does not pay – it may even be punished. At the start it may be a little harder, but usually it is only a matter of time until the dog gets the hang of it – it pays off! One very important issue is that the handler does not relapse into previous training methods such as punishing the dog for taking initiatives of its own. A small warning may be appropriate here: some (clever!) dogs – when they realize how much fun this is – go absolutely rabid and start presenting all kinds of crazy behavior at great pace, behavior that you are certainly not interested in rewarding. Just take a deep breath, act calmly, and train very short spells of time and try focusing on clicking what you DO want your dog to do. Do NOT get angry. It will work out in the end!
In principle anyone who starts clicker training needs to get over that first threshold, the one about teaching the dog that presenting behavior pays off. And I as a handler must learn to see that my dog actually does things for me that deserve clicking.
Two good tips for the inexperienced handler (and dog):
- Use gadgets for the dog to interact with
- Avoid clicking for sitting and (indeed!) for barking. (Sitting because the dog tends to remain seated and invents nothing else, barking because it is self-enforcing and in worst case the dog feels encouraged to bark at everything ever after …)
If you dish up some stuff; a box, a plank, a bowl, a target mat, any object, the dog will probably approach the object – click! And after that first click anything can happen. The dog may use its paw or its nose, it may push once or push twice, and it may freeze or bounce on the thing, perhaps step into it…
Once you have got the hang of clicking the dog’s interaction with things you will soon discover that the dog actually does a lot of things on its own, without the gadgets. It turns its head (can become a twirl), makes an invitation to play (can be turned into a graceful bow), takes a step backwards (can develop into a long reverse) and so on.
Capturing and Shaping
Have you ever noticed all the everyday moves that your dog already commands, ready to “capture”? For example sit. Or stand. Or lie down. Or even better, when your dog approaches you at full speed (a recall, even though you have not commanded the dog “Come”). Some dogs do daft thing that are fun to capture – high five, spin, tail-bite, yoyo-jump, “play dead” etcetera. Capturing tricks like this is usually a good way to begin clicker training, if you and your dog are new to the game. But THEN the time has come for shaping.
The difference between capturing and shaping is that when we “capture” a behavior it is the dog who decides what we do (the dog presents and we capture), when we “shape” we have beforehand decided the goal and work towards it, e.g. a stylish delivery to my hand.
When shaping – shaping a behavior step by step – you begin by catching the tiniest approach towards the goal. If your goal is a distinct delivery to hand, you begin by clicking that the dog’s nose is pointed to your open palm (it does not even have an object in its mouth). When the dog has put its nose into your palm, you raise the criterion, i.e. demand, in order for the dog to get clicked the next time. You want the dog to push its nose harder into your palm to get its click. If it does not do so within two or three attempts, you must back and make it easier again. If it does succeed, decide that the next nose-push must be equally hard. After a couple of repetitions you again raise your criteria. The dog should not only push hard, but also hold its nose pressed into your palm for two seconds. And so on. (Read and see a video about this in the blog Delivery to hand)
- Train for short spells of time.
- Use rewards that your dog desires!
- Do not let too much time elapse between clicks (i.e. do not make it too difficult for your dog).
- Try to practice your own timing which will help you advance swiftly.
- Do not cut corners and step ahead too quickly.
- See to it that you and your DOG have fun – then you will be successful!