In the past few years, a new method of training has begun to emerge on the K-9 circuit. Clicker training uses operant conditioning to teach your K-9 pal how to work for rewards. A click-training session uses a small handheld device and positive reinforcement.
The device is very simple. It is made of a thin sheet of metal encased in plastic. When the trainer pushes on the metal, it makes a small popping sound that is uniform every time. The sound is somewhat like the sound an empty soda can makes if you squeeze it hard enough to dent the side.
This method of training was developed as a way to ensure an animal can understand the exact moment the behavior the trainer is looking for is achieved. A reward will then be offered at that precise time. It is faster than someone saying ‘good dog’ and the sound is always uniform so the dog does not become confused by slightly different reactions from the trainer. Dogs pick up on slight changes in our voices and facial expressions. Since the clicker does not give these kinds of responses, it is easier for the dog to understand that the sound always means a positive reaction to something they have done.
This method of training is still somewhat controversial. There are people who do not believe it is effective in the long term as the dog gets used to being offered a reward and may not perform if the trainer does not have a reward or the clicker in sight. Some also point out that offering a dog so many treats all at once may make the dog gain unnecessary weight and lead to health problems later on. Some feel that clicker training may not work when the dog is too old to hear the clicker or when the environment is noisy or distracting.
I personally, have had excellent results using the clicker method. My dogs only use the clicker until they are familiar with the behavior I am expecting and then I begin to phase it out as well as the treats. I begin using a ‘cue word’ or hand gesture when I am ready to phase out the clicker and familiarize them with hearing the word or gesture and responding just as they did with the clicker.
When using a clicker to train your dog, it is important to familiarize the dog with the routine of click = treat a few times before you begin your first training session. Letting the dog know that each time he hears that sound he can expect a reward will make a lasting connection in the dog’s brain. Click training works with the way a dog is predisposed to learn because bright lights and sudden sounds are two of the easiest way to disrupt the neurophysiology of the K-9 brain. The dog will learn to perk up at the sound of the clicker in expectation as it is different than the normal human voices the dog is used to hearing on a daily basis. The receptors in the brain will then make a permanent mark, or memory of the event and the result of the event of those clicks. When the desired behavior is achieved, that will also become part of the core memory.
When first using the click trainer, start out with simple tasks that the Chi has a tendency to perform anyway, such as sitting or lying down. When the objective is reached, click at that exact second and then follow the click by a reward. If you wait too long after the behavior, refrain from clicking and try again. If the dog hears a click when it hasn’t done anything, it will become confused. Similarly, in the beginning stages of click training, if you do not offer a reward right away, the dog may come to ignore the sound of the click, rendering the training method useless.
Be consistent with your clicking and rewarding. Let the dog come to expect the click and reward combination and trust that the reward will always be offered. In the beginning, try to avoid too many distractions while you are training. As time goes on you may wish to add more distraction as a way of teaching your Chi to focus on you even when there are other things going on around them.
You should avoid making any body gestures that will alert your dog you are preparing to click. Telegraphing these movements will make your dog do the behavior simply because he expects to hear the click. You want him to display the behavior because you expect it of him and then click and reward, not have him do the behavior expecting the click. Be conscious of what you do with your arms and head right before you click. Dogs are masters at reading body language and he may pick up on a small ‘tell’ even if you don’t realize you are doing it.
The type of treats you use when clicker training should be something that you know your dog loves. One of my favorite things to use is small bites of ground beef. I know my dog likes this more than his average daily treats and if he really wants it, he will perform. You may use any treat that your dog finds particularly appetizing; just make sure it is broken down into tiny pieces. You should vary the treats occasionally so your dog does not get bored with the reward process. Dogs, just like us, prefer not to eat the same thing all the time. If you are struggling to get your dog to perform a certain behavior or trick, offering him a larger piece of a particularly tasty treat may convince him to try harder.
One of the first things I recommend teaching your Chi when you begin using the clicker, is to make eye contact with you. If your dog will give you his full attention, even for a brief period, that is the perfect opportunity to make him understand what you want. Try sitting down with your dog in front of you. Show him the treat in your hand, slowly raising it until it is in front of your eyes. When your dog responds by staying seated and looking at you, then click and give him the reward. Repeat this several times and click and reward for each desired response.
Avoid clicking if your dog is doing something that you consider a ‘bad’ behavior such as jumping on you, chewing on something inappropriate or barking. If you click during these times your dog may confuse what you expect from him and think you are rewarding him for the bad behavior, thus encouraging him to continue it.
Click training works with dogs of all breeds, sizes and ages. You may work with the clicker until you feel the dog has mastered the behavior you are trying to teach him and then slowly begin phasing out the clicker and the constant rewards for a system of larger rewards once in a while without clicking. This way the dog will not know when to expect the treat, but will perform the behavior perfectly, hoping for that occasional really good reward.
Trying to teach the dog too many different things during the same training session will work against you. Choose one or two behaviors at a time and give your Chi the chance to perfect them before moving on to something else. Clicker sessions should be kept short, 5-10 minute intervals. If the session is too long your dog may get full and stop paying attention or may over-exert themselves mentally and stop wanting to train. Rather than go for one long session of clicker training each day, break it up into two or three short sessions, perhaps morning afternoon and evening.
If your dog is already suffering from weight issues, try to avoid giving too many high fat treats and instead reward with something low in fat such as small bite-sized pieces of chicken jerky. This will avoid adding extra calories to the dog’s diet. You may also want to reduce the amount of food you are giving your dog during this period of training.
Puppies are usually more receptive to learning from the clicker whereas an older dog may have been trained forcefully and might take a while to adjust to the new, hands-off method. All dogs learn at a different rate and enjoy different rewards. Keep in mind that if your Chi is making small advancement, it is still progress.
If you are going to train your Chi to perform more difficult tasks, you should do them in stages. Say for instance, you are training your dog to lie down and roll over. You could begin rewarding when the dog lays down on command. Then you could move on to rewarding the dog when it rolls to its back and eventually for rolling all the way over. As these are all steps in progress toward the final result, the rewards will help your dog understand that it is doing right and pleasing you.
Eventually you should not require more than a hand gesture or cue word to get your dog to do the proper behavior. Once the pattern of learning is established, you should continue training your Chi in a similar fashion for every behavior you wish to teach him, so that he does not become confused about what you are expecting of him or what the result will be.