ClickerSolutions Training Articles

Advice for Beginners

Four of my dogs are rescues, and two are ten month old pups right now. The pups began clicker training at 8 weeks, as soon as they arrived!

Here's some basic clicker suggestions:

  1. Definitely train one dog at a time in isolation. However, if you can manage to put in a long enough time, if you do the dogs one after the other, you will find they will become very excited and anxious to be trained. ("I want to be next!!!") If you do this, vary the order each day. (I'll bet you've seen this already!)
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  2. Stick to short sessions of no more than ten minutes. For a pup, five is good. Then try to do two or three sessions a day of you can.
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  3. If both you and your husband are going to be training:
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    • It is usually preferable for ONE person to train a particluar activity first in a dog, and not share the training. So if you train Rex to Sit and Stay, YOU should continue that training until Rex really has it down and the command has been attached. Then your husband can start trying the Sit and Stay with Rex. It is sometimes confusing if two people try to train the same activity with the same dog during the same period of time. Since you have so many, maybe you could divide them up between the two of you, then switch groups every few weeks?
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    • If two people are training the same dog--even if not in the same activity--make sure the two of you get together and agree and rehearse your training habits. You both want to do everything as similarly as possible. If you husband says, "Come!" in a loud voice, and you say it in a quiet voice, confusion! If you use a hand signal when you say "Sit" and your husband uses a different one, confusion! (And most people use hand signals and body language unconsciously! Watch yourself in the mirror sometimes when you train!) So get your signals, words, and movements coordinated.
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  4. One of the problems many new clicker trainers encounter after a short while is overfed dogs! You can deal with this (assuming you are using mostly food treats as rewards) in several ways:
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    • Take no more than 1/3 of each dogs breakfast and/or dinner kibble and use it to reward training. Then subtract that amount from the meal.
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    • Mix up your rewards. A food treat for a few successes. Then a few minutes playing with a favorite toy for the next one. Etc. Sometimes, the very object you are training with can become its own reward. For example, when I taught my Rottie pup to "Drop it" using a tug toy, I at frist rewarded by offering a treat. (That's the way to get started with "Drop it!" While the dog has a toy in its mouth, you offer a food treat which is more desireable than the toy, and the dog drops the toy to get the food.) However, once the pup got the idea, the reward for dropping the tug toy became giving her back the same tug toy!
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    • Make food rewards as small as possible to still be effective. Many beginners give treats that are much too large. If you are using any type of treat right out of the bag, it is too large! I purchase large canisters of freeze-dried liver. The cubes of liver are a little larger than dice. I cut each cube into 8 smaller cubes, each the size of a pea or smaller! Experiment with how little you can get away with.
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    • This is my best trick, and I credit it to myself since I thought it up, even though I am sure many others have used it before me! It works especially well with puppies and smaller dogs, but can work well with larger dogs also. Go to the supermarket and buy those tiny cans of babyfood! Buy only pure meat varieties. I use Gerber Beef and Broth.

      Label one jar for each dog. At training time, open the top, and hold the jar in one hand, or keep it nearby. For each reward, simply stick one finger into the babyfood, removing literally a "dab" of the stuff on your finger tip, and give a lick. The babyfood is tasty and meaty enough that a small amount will usually be quite acceptable to most dogs as a reward, it is very easy to dispense (no holding bits of solid food in your hand, pocket, etc.), and you use so little, you can train a medium size dog for several days on one tiny 4 0z. can! Also, if you ever get into target training where you train the dog to touch its nose on a certain spot, a dab of babyfood sticks anywhere and is the perfect tool! The only counterindication for the bnaby food technique is if you have a SHARK who likes to bite the food out of your hand! (BTW, a doog way to retrain this, is to close your fist around a nugget of food. Let the dog sniff, lick, bite, whatever, but do not open the hand and give the food until it is acting gently. Deliver the food at first from the open palm of your hand, and gradually work up to finger-held delivery. If biting begins again, back the food goes into a closed fist!)
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  5. Train all the dogs for ATTENTION. The most important skill you will ever teach them!
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    • Hold the clicker in one hand and a food treat in the other while kneeling or sitting in front of the sitting dog.
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    • Raise both arms straight out to your sides, so the clicker and treat are on opposite sides, at about shoulder height, as far as you can reach away from your body.
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    • Now, wait for the dog to look at YOU! To get the treat, the dog must glance at your face, if ever so briefly. As soon as it does, click and give it the treat in that other hand. Repeat at least 10 times per session.
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    • If the dog goes for the treat, or offers any unwanted behavior, ignore it. Just put enough effort in to keep the treat away from the dog. (Raise the arm.) Ignore everything except looking at your face. The split second you get a glance, click and treat.

      This exercise trains the dog to pay attention to you. It counteracts the notion that the food reward is the important thing and shows that YOU are the key to the reward. So it deemphasizes the reinforcer and emphasizes you as the master. If done day after day, the dog will develop an automatic reflex to look at you the second you call its name. (When begun with pups, it can become a dramatic life-long response--they will literally SNAP their necks toward you every time you say their names!)
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    Variations and Increasing the Difficulty:

    These should be added once the dog gets the basic exercise and does it well and consistently.

      • First, start requiring that the dog look at you for a longer time. Where you may have clicked for a quick glance at first, start expecting two seconds, then four seconds, up to about ten. This is called "raising the bar" or "differential reinforcement." It simply means you keep requiring a little more difficulty to get the treat.
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      • Switch the clicker and treat to the other hand.
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      • Hold your hands in different positions--above your head, or the ultimate challenge--resting on your lap!
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      • Start saying the dog's name to command the attention.
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      • Eventually, work toward doing the exercise from a standing position, and also farther from the dog. (A step at a time!)
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  6. With multiple dogs, you will soon find out that some pick up certain skills much faster than others. Rather than chart a program that you will follow with all the dogs, be observant of their differences. One dog may master the first five behaviors in one week and never need to be trained again, while another will need endless repetiton for months! Go with the dog's talents, and do not bore fast-learners by needlessly repeating exercises they already have mastered. Instead, add some difficulty to the exercise. (Like master the one minute sit-stay with you five feet away, then go for a two minute sit-stay with you sitting in a chair ten feet away!)
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  7. The most important principle: The dog should always have more successes than failures. The dog should always end a session on a success. So if you find a dog goofing up a lot, go back to a simpler exercise that it can easily do to boost its confidence. Never allow many successive failures in a row! Whatever you may be training, your main goal is always to have the dog succeeding most of the time!
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  8. Finally, most people drastically underestimate the power of dogs to learn quickly through positive methods like clicker training. Pups especially soak up command s like sponges! I always tell the story of how I clicker trained my then 9 week old Rottie pup to Sit, and do a one minute sit-stay in two five minute sessions on the same day. That was it. Eight months later, he still does them with almost a 100% compliance, and I have never practiced or retreained him after thart ten minutes. So be prepared to be amazed, and do not let your misconceoptions slow down pups and dogs that can go faster than'you would believe. Always evaluate what you see before planning what comes next!

That should give you some things to work on. The Attention Exercise is absolutely worth its weight in gold! Definitely work on it. It is a good one to begin each session with.

Barry McDonald
BMcD@catskill.net
Copyright 2002 Barry McDonald

 

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