Saturday, January 23, 2010

When You And Your Dog Click

While this article is about clicking literally, it applies figuratively also.

You probably noticed that there seems to be as many different training methods and tools as there are experts. With a closer look though you'll find that they often share similar principles. I believe it is important to become familiar with the different techniques before you pick one that best suits you and your dog.

There are four basic types of training methods and I will discuss each of them the later on:
  • positive reinforcement
  • negative reinforcement
  • positive punishment
  • negative punishment
Clicker training falls under positive reinforcement methods. What is positive reinforcement? Positive reinforcement simply means that when your dog does something you want, you respond by giving him something that he wants, most commonly a piece of food.

Your dog quickly learns which behavior comes with a reward and will start offering it in a hope of another treat. At that time you label it (sit, down, roll-over) and the label then becomes a command. It is important to make sure that you label the behavior while it's happening, in order for your dog to make the correct association. Once your dog makes the connection between the behavior and the word, voila, you've taught your dog a trick! You then reward it only when you asked for it. That teaches your dog that he needs to pay attention to what you want in order to get things.

So what is different about clicker training?

Your dog can learn things faster and with less frustration when you're communicating clearly. Timing and consistency of your feedback plays an important role in helping your dog understand what it is that you want him to do. And that is where the clicker comes in.

A clicker allows you to precisely mark the behavior you want. It is an effective way of letting your dog know yes, this is what I want you to do, reward is coming. It is the ability to provide a perfectly timed feedback that makes clicker training different and a great training tool.

The precision the clicker provides really makes a big difference. Dogs pick it up quickly and really enjoy their training. Once you master your timing, the sky is a limit to what you can teach your dog.

To get a picture of how well clicker training works, ponder this – even cats can be clicker-trained! It's true, our son clicker trained his cats.

What do I need to clicker train?

Well, you need a clicker. A clicker is a small device that clicks. They come in all shapes and sizes, and you should be able to pick one up in any pet store.

You will also need some yummy bits of food.

And you will need to learn to watch your dog and practice your timing.

How do I start?

First thing you need to do to start clicker training is to introduce your dog to the idea. Sit down with your dog and a bunch of treats. Click and treat. Your dog will quickly make the association between the sound and the treat. Once your dogs stops looking at the hand holding the treats and starts watching the hand holding the clicker, you know the association has been made and you're all set.

Have fun. Watch your dog. When you see him do something you might want to turn into a trick, click and reward. If you're just starting to train a new dog, start with a simple sit or down command. Wait until your dog sits or lays down, click and treat.

If your dog already knows basic commands use your imagination or get a book for inspiration.

Keep raising the bar. Once your dog learns a trick, ask that he performs it more that once before you click and treat, or ask for sequences. To keep your dog interested, challenge him by treating only every other time. Eventually replace the treat by verbal praise.

Happy training!
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