Puppy Clicking

I was talking about puppy training recently with several people, and I guess I enjoy clicker training a lot more than most people, because I love the fast results. But I also like the fact that you can get results with just a few minutes at a time.

Herewith, my advice to a friend who said their dog got bored after six repetitions, and wasn’t very interested in food, either:

If your dog is only good for 6 reps, quit after five and just do more sessions a day. With Elly, three minutes of hard training (which is about fifty reps for me) is her limit (at age 6!)–Dancer will literally work for hours. But I really made progress with Elly when I started limiting myself to 30 seconds. (Oh yes, and both of them would rather be with me than eat. But if I have the itty-bitty pieces of steak, no worries. Which brings to mind the importance of really high quality treats!)

HOWEVER… if your dog is not food motivated, I’d lay bets she’s a bit overfed. What works for everyone I know is to feed the dog its daily food as rewards for clicks. The dog has to work for EVERYTHING. (It’s called NILIF by trainers: Nothing In Life Is Free.)

Lots of people expect to transition quickly to voice-only commands, but dogs have spent eons learning to read our bodies. Languages… well, not so much. Personally, I don’t bother much with voice, just because I find gestures so much easier to train. A sweep upwards of the hand for SIT, a push down for DOWN, a flat palm for TOUCH (nose to palm), a bowling motion for GO TO YOUR MAT.

So, to get started with the clicker: don’t feed the dog breakfast… Then, wind yourself up into a frenzy for training. Have the treats ready. Get out the squeaky voice and the tennis shoes. I’m assuming you’ve already primed the clicker (click and give the dog a treat immediately about twenty times; put the clicker away and wait a while before the next time).

For a sit, put a treat in your hand, get the dog’s attention, and then sweep your hand slowly past his nose and straight up. His head will follow and his butt will go down. Click and give the treat, even if his butt doesn’t hit the ground. Move a few steps so the dog will follow, then repeat, expecting just a little more this time. Third time–no treat in your hand–pull it out of your pocket after the click. Four or five sessions of this should get you a good sit on the gesture alone.

Now, to get the dog to start thinking. Instruct the dog to sit by whatever means works best. Click immediately, and toss the treat away from you so the dog has to get up and go get it. Run with the dog, and as soon as he gets the treat, tell him to sit (by whatever means works best), click, throw the treat, etc. If you think he’ll get bored after six reps, only do five. (Yes, it did take longer to write this then it will do to it.) Then put the clicker in your pocket, show the dog your empty hands and say “all done.” Then just walk away.

Repeat training sessions until the dog is sitting as soon as he finishes the treat without waiting for you to ask. With most dogs this is four or five of these high energy sessions.

Next step, alternate SIT with COME. Have the dog come to you for the sit after you throw the treat. DO NOT LURE WITH THE TREAT. At this point, treats go in your pocket so the dog never knows if you have a treat or not. The dog will turn to you after he eats the thrown treat. Click ONCE ONLY at the moment he looks back at you, THEN get out the treat and start patting your chest or doing whatever it takes to get the dog to come to you. (If you do this in a small room with no distractions, it will be a lot easier.) Give the dog the treat, then tell him to SIT. Click the SIT and throw the treat.

Now you’re at ten treats a session–five SITS and five COMES. Now you start fading the treat for SIT and expect the dog to sit in front of you for his treat for coming. Give him the treat while he’s sitting nicely. By now your dog is thinking “oh, I sit nicely in front of mom and good things happen. Oh, and that click means something.”

Now, the dog is sitting nicely in front of you. You can stand there being terribly boring and wait for the dog to lie down, or you can lure. Me, I’m lazy, I lure. Take the treat and bring it down to the floor in front of the dog, without letting him have it. Most dog will fold into a down just to follow the treat. If that doesn’t work, sit on the floor and make a tent with your knee and lure the dog under it, then click the moment he comes under it. Give the dog the treat while he’s in the down position or close to it. Lure TWICE ONLY, then wait. Wait quietly, don’t move. Watch your dog think. Watch him try things. When he tries lying down, click it, reward, and QUIT for a while. Now you’ve taught the dog “if I try things, sometimes she clicks.”

The hardest thing for me in dog training is knowing when to quit. Quitting right when your dog seems to get it is SO hard, because you want to try it again. But if you quit then… just wait for the next session, you’ll be amazed.

Oh, as for adding a word to a body position… Wait until you’re SURE that your gesture will do the trick, then say the word just as the dog STARTS the behavior (just as the butt moves down in a SIT, for example). If you do that consistently, pretty soon the word alone will do.