Clicker Training for Dogs


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Over the past 2 decades there has been a dramatic change in the way we train dogs. As people have become uncomfortable using the more traditional, harsher methods of training, many new trainers have made a name for themselves using kinder reward based methods, but no-one to date has made such an impact as Karen Pryor, the dolphin trainer from Sea World, who brought us clicker training.

Clicker training is basically a method of conveying the message to a dog that he has done something very well and that for his efforts, he has earned a reward. First you teach the dog that the clicker means reward, then you teach him to work for the clicker in order to gain his reward. Basically, it is the same principle that we work on – we go to work to earn money, and we spend the money on things that we want.

Of course you could just use a treat, but the clicker allows the handler to be much more precise about which bit of the dogs behaviour was right, especially where sometimes the dog has to go through several actions to reach the desired behaviour – such as walking up to, picking up and carrying a toy. If you are teaching your dog to pick things up, you would click just as his mouth reached for the object. He then knows that that was the desired behaviour.

A ‘click word’ like ‘yeah!’ can work well, but sometimes our voices are inconsistent – it is almost impossible to be 100% precise with a vocal command whereas the clicker is always consistent and with a little practice you can be very precise. The dog might hear the click word in other situations too, which could also lead to desensitising the dog to it, but the actual click of the clicker is a unique sound, so the dog will – if you use it correctly - always associate it with his having carried out the desired behaviour or action.

Two aspects which I find are particularly nice about this method of training, is that firstly, it encourages your dog to look to you for cues and so strengthening your relationship with each other. For very nervous or particularly over confident dogs, gaining their trust and respect can prove to be quite a challenge, especially when using traditional training methods which might cause the nervous dog to withdraw into himself and the over confident dog to just ignore you and wander off, but clicker training quickly encourages confidence in the nervous dog and respect in the more confident dog, by developing a bond of trust and a working partnership.

Secondly, it also encourages your dog to use his own mind as he tries to work out what task or action he can offer that will earn him a click. As an owner, you will have great fun learning about how your dog’s mind works and you are sure to a have few giggles along the way while your dog offers different behaviours. From your dog’s point of view, this is a very thorough mental work out.

Mental exercise is just as vital to a dog as physical exercise, if not more so, and can off load off excess energy just as quickly. If ever you find yourself in a situation whereby your dog is on light exercise only – maybe you can’t walk your bitch because she is in season or your dog has an injury, or you just physically cannot take your dog out for a while - but at the same time he is virtually climbing the walls for want of exercise, just ten minutes of free shaping with a clicker will be sure to calm him down. It certainly works for my young Weimaraner, so I feel qualified to say that it’ll work for just about any dog!

Clicker training for dogs is a very straightforward and clear guide to get you started. It has a great section giving you simple exercises from which you can build your skills and gives easy to follow advice on how you can use your clicker for both practical good manners training and fun tricks. You cannot help but be inspired. Since reading this book, I have. Although we had already done some clicker training previously, in the past 4 days I have dramatically improved up my dog’s loose lead walking and we have been learning to walk backwards.

The book also suggests that there is a section at the back giving details of further reading, a feature I am always pleased to see in a book, though in this case I wonder that this might be a bit of a trick because throughout it puts emphasis on encouraging both the dog and the handler use their imagination and think for themselves, but you’ll find that page 111 ‘clicker resources’ is completely blank!

Never mind, it’s a great book for anyone who is interested in clicker training, and even if you are happy with the way your training has progressed with your dog and feel that you don’t need to train him anymore, it is also a useful standby should he have to go on restricted exercise. Its fun for both of you – give it a go!

We have a few sites listed, which you will find useful if you are interested in clicker training, on our links page. You might also like to read an extended review on Karen Pryor’s ‘Don’t Shoot the Dog’.

Review by Diana Attwood.