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Using a Clicker in Dog Training

Clicker training is based on the concepts of operant conditioning, which describes the effects of a trainer's particular action on the future occurrence of an animal's behavior. The dog is first trained to associate the clicker sound with getting a treat, a pleasant experience. After the dog associates the click with getting a treat, the trainer has two options:

  • Option 1: The trainer can wait until the dog voluntarily offers the desired behavior on his own, such as sit. When the dog sits, the trainer clicks, marking the end of the behavior, and reinforces the behavior with a treat. This option works well with extroverted dogs that will offer a variety of behaviors in the hope that one of them will get them a treat. An introverted dog, on the other hand, may show little interest in the game. The "wait and see what happens" approach, depending on the dog, can be a lengthy process and extremely stressful for the dog — he may stop offering any behaviors and just lie down.
  • Option 2: The trainer doesn't have the time or patience to wait for the desired behavior to happen, so he induces the behavior. Again, in the case of the Sit, the trainer uses a treat to get the dog to assume the sitting position, and when the dog sits, the trainer clicks, marking the end of the behavior, and gives the treat. Obviously, this approach is much more efficient than waiting for the dog to offer the desired behavior on his own.

After the dog consistently offers the behavior of sitting, for which he is rewarded with a click and a treat (positive reinforcement), the trainer then adds a cue to the behavior, such as a command or signal, or both. The trainer waits until he thinks the dog is going to sit and says/signals "Sit." When the dog does, the trainer clicks and treats.

Now that the dog understands the cue of "Sit," the trainer eliminates the click and treat when the dog offers the behavior on his own (negative punishment). If the trainer is looking for a different behavior, he may say "Wrong" or "Oops" to convey to the dog that he wants something else (positive punishment, but actually a hybrid, meaning "Try again").

With a clicker the trainer can mark the end of the desired behavior with greater accuracy than he can with verbal praise, which means clearer communication with the dog. Although the dog does all the work, clicker training requires keen powers of observation and split-second timing to mark the end of the desired behavior and plenty of patience.

The ultimate object of any training is to have your dog respond reliably to your commands. Ideally, he responds to the first command. Telling your dog to do something and have him ignore you is frustrating. Think of Buddy's response in terms of choices. Do you want to teach Buddy to think he has a choice of responding to you? Probably not. You want a dog that understands, after you have trained him, that he has to do what you tell him.

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