Welcome to another Lucky Dog article. There are many different methods of training, using a variety of mechanisms and tools to reach the desired result – a well-trained dog. This article is not designed to teach you how to teach your dog any single command-response action, but rather, to teach you the ten key concepts you absolutely need to know in order to successfully employ clicker training in your training regimen.
Concept #1: Always plan for your clicker training sessions when your energy is high and your mood is good. If you begin your sessions with an upbeat, happy mood, your dog will pick up on this and be more eager to please and share in your good mood. Conversely, if you are feeling tired, irritated or frustrated, do not start a clicker training session – even if you had planned and scheduled time for yourself to do so. Training a dog is an activity that in and of itself can be frustrating at times, and you should never start a session already irritated.
Concept #2: Dogs generally have a relatively short attention span and the length of the session should mirror this fact. They are not college kids who can handle classes of upwards of ninety minutes at a time; no matter how wonderful your dog is he (or she) is still a dog. Especially when first accustoming your dog to training, keep your training sessions short, upbeat, and fun. Start with sessions that are only a few minutes, and gradually increase to sessions of up to fifteen minutes as your dog becomes accustomed to the idea of training. Focus on only one new command per session, but reinforce previously-learned commands in each session as well.
Concept #3: Commands must be consistent and short – one or two words. If you wish to teach your dog to not jump up on people or furniture, you might use the command “Off” in the first session meant to teach the command and desired response. If you then switch in the next session to the command “Down” and expect the same response, your dog will almost certainly be confused. Likewise, do not surround the command with additional words that your dog does not understand – just use the dog’s name followed by the command. Preplan your commands and desired responses before your training sessions so that you don’t need to change a command-response after you have already begun teaching it in your sessions.
Concept #4: Most trainers will use a reward, such as a small treat, to reward the dog for producing the correct response. Reward treats should be small, bite-sized treats; giving larger treats, which will take the dog longer to eat, will reduce the actual training time. Many trainers believe that the treats should be particularly special – something your dog prefers over his regular food or treats. Some trainers choose to use bits of the dogs’ regular dry kibble. You may wish to experiment to see if the use of either a special treat or bits of the regular kibble causes a variation in your dog’s response; use whichever helps your training sessions to be successful. In addition to a food reward, be prepared to be very upbeat with your praise, both vocally “Good Sit, Jack!” and a pat or two on the head. If your dog shows boredom with the selected treat, consider having two or three types of treats so that your dog is always happily surprised by which treat he will earn. Don’t be afraid to give several of the bite-sized treats when your dog “gets” the command and executes it for the first time exactly the way you want it.
Concept #5: Plan for the training sessions to occur before your dog’s meal. If he has already gorged himself on his dinner, he will be much less likely to be enticed by treats as a food reward.
Concept #6: As with real estate, location, location, and location is critical in training. When first teaching a new command and response, and until your dog can perform the command reliably every time, choose a quiet location free from distractions. Give your dog every opportunity to be able to focus his attention on you and what you are attempting to teach him. Later, when he can reliably perform the given command in a distraction-free environment, you can slowly up the ante by moving the sessions to a location with small distractions (such as a backyard).
Concept #7: Use your dog’s name as a preface to the actual command. This will signal him that you require his attention. If he does not look up at you when you say his name, do not follow with the command, as you do not have his attention. Instead, wait a moment to see if he will look up at your face; when he does, give him a small treat. If he doesn’t, simply repeat his name and wait. He will eventually look at you, unless he is already overly distracted. If the command you wish to teach your dog Jack is to sit, you would say “Jack, Sit”, rather than just “Sit”.
Concept #8: Keep both the clicker and food reward in hand when training. Clickers are readily available at most pet stores; some cost as little as a dollar. Occasionally, smaller pet stores may give out clickers with their store name or logo for free. Find a clicker that is audible with a nice, sharp “Click” sound, and use the same device consistently in training.
Concept #9: Knowing when to click (called “marking the behavior“) is critical. For example, if you are teaching your dog to “Sit”, you should click as your dog’s bottom is hitting the floor. All too often, folks new to training think they need to wait for the dog to be in a full sit, looking up to the owner for the next command. That is far too late to mark the behavior with a click when your dog is just learning a behavior. When teaching in the clicker training method, the click needs to occur as your dog is actually executing the desired response, not after it is fully completed.
Concept #10: Pre-load your dog to associate the sound of the click as a good thing, even before actually beginning training. You can easily do this by clicking when you first put down your dog’s food bowl at meal times for several days before you begin your actual training sessions.
Using the ten key concepts above, you are now well prepared to embark on the training journey with your dog and to enjoy a long and happy relationship.
About the author: Sharon McCuddy is the author of the “Lucky Dog” article series, which includes the above article. In part, the author draws on her experiences as a dog owner, rescuer and dog foster home to provide educational articles in the Lucky Dog series. Readers are strongly encouraged to consult with their veterinarian for any medical related issues, and to use the information provided in the articles as a basis for self-education as a responsible dog owner.