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A Click to Learn

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010 by Jenna

I’d heard of clicker training but couldn’t understand why a dog would care about a clicking noise. Still, it’s a method used by many people who train their dogs for complex tasks like agility and freestyle (doggie dancing) so I began to research it. The first thing I learned is that the clicker is not a remote control! It creates a marker sound (click!) that signals a correct behavior and a coming reward (rewards can be food, tug-o-war, praise, etc). Because it’s short and immediate, it can be precise. With treats alone, you might try to give your dog a treat for sitting but then he gets up to get the treat…so what he’s really being rewarded for is getting up. You can use a verbal marker like ‘Yes!’ but variations in tone and emotion, not to mention it being a word used outside of training, means this isn’t as clear to the dog as the sound a clicker makes.

The fascinating thing for me about this type of training is that it gets your dog’s brain working. Typically, I have trained my dogs to sit by luring them with a treat. But they’re not really thinking about sitting, they’re thinking about the food and happen to come into a sit position because I lift the food over their head. I’ve also tried pushing my dogs into position—it’s not harmful but it’s not getting them to think either. Using clicker training, I instead “shape” behavior by click+rewarding each step the dog makes toward the desired behavior. Once they’re doing the behavior consistently, you can begin adding a cue/command and gradually decrease the treats. If you’re lucky, you can also “capture” a behavior. For example, a sit. Even wild puppies eventually sit down for a break…there’s your chance to click+reward. Once your dog realizes that his actions make you give him a reward, he might even start “throwing” behaviors at you to see what he can earn!

You can see an example of teaching a Great Dane to go to bed in this video.

For more about clicker training (and an entertaining read about a crazy Border Collie), check out “Shaping Success” by Susan Garrett.


Some other training tips to keep in mind:

-“Charge” your marker at the start of each session by clicking/rewarding for nothing

-Keep training sessions short and fun (timing depends on the dog)

-Avoid corrections (ie if your dog lays down instead of sitting let the lack of click/reward show that it’s not what you wanted)

-Aim for success—keep your reward criteria easy enough that your dog is earning a treat 70% of the time

-Vary rewards (sometimes no reward, sometimes a great reward)

-Heighten the criteria for rewards to be earned

-Use jackpots (lots of treats/really good toy) for breakthroughs

-End on a high note even if it means going back to a much simpler behavior

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