June 24th •
Training your dog commands can take a lot of time and a lot of patience. To make the task easier, many trainers turn to clickers, devices that emit a sharp, distinct noise.
Clickers are used to quickly grab your dog’s attention, letting them know they are doing what you asked them to. Once they hear the click, they know they’re about to receive a reward.
Training your dog with a clicker can speed up the process, making it easier to keep their attention and reinforce good behaviors. However, it can take some time to get used to clicker training.
Here, we’ll walk you through all you need to know about clicker training. Even dogs with great temperaments may take a while to learn, so always take your time and remember to be patient.
Clicker training is all about timing. The clicker helps get your dog’s attention, letting them know that they’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to.
However, if you click at the wrong time, you can just confuse your dog anymore. They won’t know why they are being rewarded, and so the reinforcement won’t work.
If you’re training your dog to chase a ball, click when you want them to start running. That way your dog will learn to associate the click with chasing the ball.
Any good dog trainer knows the power of a reward to speed up learning. Rewards can reinforce good behaviors, letting your dog know when they’re doing the right thing.
But not just any reward will do. Make sure you choose a treat that your dog responds to, and that they’ll actively work for. If you choose any old snack off the shelf, your dog may not be as interested.
There are plenty of good options for rewards. You can use your dog’s favorite treat, or small pieces of chicken. Some dogs may even like bits of fruit (just make sure not to use grapes).
Also make sure that the treat is fairly small. For one, you don’t want your dog to be distracted by a large bone. You also need to get plenty of reps in while training, and you need a treat that you can give your dog time and time again without them filling up.
Some dogs respond more strongly to toys than to food, especially if they’re not hungry. However, toys can be a bit of a distraction during training, especially when your dog is learning tricky new commands.
Clickers make sharp, distinct sounds to grab your dog’s attention. This attention grabbing noise, while useful, can scare many dogs at first. If you try to train right away with the clicker, your dog may run away, or be confused by the noise.
To get your dog used to the clicker, try to expose them to the sound before you begin training. One way to do this is to simply click frequently around the dog until they stop fearing the noise.
However, you’ll want your dog to think “Click! That mean’s treats.” One way of doing this is giving them a reward when you use the clicker, without asking them to do anything. You can also muffle the clicker a bit, so that the sound isn’t quick as stressful.
Slowly, your dog will begin to see that there’s nothing to fear from the clicker, and that it could even mean a tasty treat is on the way.
A quick note on getting your dog used to the clicker. Never use the clicker as a way of punishing bad behavior, as this will only make them fear the noise. Later, when you’re trying to train, you’ll have issues getting them to behave if they get anxious every time they hear the clicker.
Now that your dog isn’t afraid of the clicker, you can begin to train them specific behaviors.
When you’re teaching your dog new behaviors, you want them to be thinking “What can I do so that I get a treat?” At first, they won’t know what to do to get a reward.
Start by having your dog target an object. This means that you’ll teach your dog to react whenever they see a target. For example, hold a ball behind your back along with the clicker. Then extend your hand out, showing them the ball.
Remember, you’re trying to teach them to respond to the ball. If they start moving toward the ball, use the clicker and give them a reward. Keep repeating this, clicking every time they make a move toward the target.
Eventually, your dog will think “Target! If I move towards it, I’ll get a treat.” Whenever they move toward the target and get a treat, make sure to shower them in plenty of praise as well.
If it takes them a while, don’t panic. It can be hard for dogs to get interested in training, and they may also get bored. If one target isn’t working, try another one that draws their interest.
Also make sure not to tire your dog out. It can be tempting to keep going, especially when they’re doing so well. But if you push too hard, your dog may get fatigued, and they may start to make mistakes. Training is a long road, so make sure you’re giving your dog plenty of rest every step of the way.
Now that your dog has learned the ropes, you’ll need to start making things more difficult for them.
At this point, your dog understands that responding to a target can win them a reward. Try to get them to do a slightly more complicated behavior.
To pick up the example with the ball, now you want to teach your dog to grab the ball with their mouth. As they move toward the ball, don’t click right away.
At this point your dog is expecting a reward, but they haven’t heard a click yet. They’ll start trying new behaviors, wondering what they can do to earn their treat. Once they get closer to what you want them to do (biting the ball) click and give them a treat.
Keep repeating this process, rewarding your dog every time they get closer to performing the targeted behavior. Remember, this could take some time, especially when you’re teaching them complicated commands. Be patient, and shower your dog in praise whenever they start getting it right.
Once your dog has mastered a slightly harder task, you’ll need to up the ante even more. That means teaching them more complicated tasks.
Repeat the same process as before, waiting to click once they do the behavior they’ve been trained for. If you want them to jump up and grab the ball, lift the ball above their head. They may stare at you in confusion, wondering why they haven’t received their treat yet.
But slowly, they’ll try out new behaviors, and eventually will jump up to grab the ball. When they do this, click and give them a treat. Again, this will take plenty of repetition, and don’t get frustrated if it takes your dog a while to get it.
By now you probably get the point. After your dog learns a behavior, add in a new twist to keep them on their toes. This is where you can start training your dog to do even more complicated tasks.
For example, you’ve taught your dog to jump up and grab a ball. Now, have them jump up, then wait for them to hand you the ball. If they drop in instead, that’s fine as well, and reward them with a treat. As they get closer and closer, reward them with plenty of praise, as well as a treat.
Once your dog has pretty much mastered the task, you can teach them to do it on command. You want them to associate a command word with the behavior so that you can say the word and they’ll respond right away.
You’ve taught your dog to jump and grab a ball and hand it over to you. Now, you want them to do this on command. Let’s use the word “Fetch!” as our cue word. Take the ball, raise it up, and say “fetch!” quickly. Your dog has already been taught the command, and will do it as normal. Click, and give them their treat.
You want them to associate the word “fetch” with the behavior. So hold the ball out, but don’t say the cue. At first, your dog may keep jumping. But now you only want them to do the behavior on cue. Don’t click or give them a treat when they jump without the cue.
This can be a bit confusing for some dogs. They’ve spent a lot of time learning complicated commands, and now they aren’t receiving treats when they do them. But with plenty of repetition, they’ll start to associate the cue word with the behavior, and only do it on command.
Remember, you’re only using the clicker as a tool. Eventually, you want to be able to cue a behavior from your dog without having to click. This, however, may take some patience.
Start by skipping a reward every now and again. When your dog does what they’re told to, click and give them a treat 9 out of 10 times. Slowly decrease the percent of behaviors where your dog gets a reward.
Also make sure that you’re varying the pattern of reward/no reward during training. You don’t want your dog to be able to guess when they’re going to get a treat.
As you reward less and less, switch from using the clicker to a simple verbal cue. This will allow you to train without having to continuously rely on the clicker.
Once you’ve weaned off the clicker, give your dog one last reward after they get a behavior just right.
Dogs rely a lot on context and environment when training. You may think that your dog has mastered all of their tricks, only to find that you can barely get them to sit down at the dog park. That’s why it’s important that you train your dog in plenty of new places.
Start with something easy. Move to different rooms in your house, having your dog do the same behaviors they’ve perfected by now. Dogs vary a lot in how they do in new areas. Some will do just fine, while others will struggle to pay attention. If your dog has problems, try not to get frustrated, and always give them plenty of praise.
Once they get used to training around the house or yard, throw in some distractions. If you’ve been training them alone, have other people around to try to throw your dog off balance. Other dogs might be too hard at this point, especially if the other dogs aren’t well trained.
As your dog adjusts to training with other people around, you can have these people try to distract them by running around or making noise. This can be a tough step for a lot of dogs, and you’ll have to be patient. But eventually you can help your dog learn to focus on the task at hand.
One of the hardest things for dogs to do is behave around other dogs. That’s why training around other dogs is something you should only do once your puppy has mastered the basics.
If you have other dogs, you can start slowly by trying to train around them. This will be much more difficult if your other dogs aren’t trained, or if they’re particularly active and energetic. But it’s important that your dog learn to follow cues when they’re distracted by other dogs.
Repeat the training process as you’ve done it so far, rewarding them when they get the behavior right. If you want to continue to use the clicker as a way of grabbing your dog’s attention, don’t worry. What’s important here is that your dog pays attention and doesn’t get too distracted.
Once your dog is comfortable training around other animals, it’s time to try out the dog park. This can be an overwhelming experience for a lot of dogs, and don’t panic if everything goes wrong the first time.
There’s a lot that can stimulate your puppy at a dog park, and they’re going to get distracted. But try to keep them on task, and always shower them in praise and treats when they do get things right.
Most important of all, make sure you repeat and repeat. Even the best dog is going to take time to learn commands in distracting environments. You should also keep sessions at the dog park short, as it takes a lot of energy for your dog to restrain themselves and stay focused.
You’ve been a lot of time training by now. Take some time off and relax with your dog. Don’t worry about training for a while and just enjoy their company.
You’ve mastered the process of training your dog with a clicker. Now you can teach your dog to do just about anything.
We used the example of having your dog jump up and grab a ball. Use clicker training to teach your dog to fetch other objects, or teach them handshakes. You can even teach them to bark on cue. Just about anything you can imagine, you can probably teach your dog to do.
You can also use clicking to take advantage of your dog’s preexisting behaviors. For example, dogs love to stretch out on the floor and rest. You can use this behavior to train them to do it on command.
Hang out around your dog and wait for them to naturally do a behavior. Here, we’ll stick with the example of lying down. As your dog begins to lie down, have your clicker ready. When they’re on their way to the ground, click and give them a reward.
Continue this process, clicking and rewarding your dog when they lie down. They’ll soon associate lying down with the reward. You can also do this process giving your dog a cue. Do what you’ve done before, but say “lie down” right before you expect your dog to do so.
When they do lie down, click and give them a reward. Keep repeating this, saying the cue before they do the behavior.
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