Chapter OneGet Clicked
Before you begin clicker training, you need to understand the underlying principles that make the clicker so effective. This knowledge will help you understand how to use the clicker and your dog learn how to react to it.
Basically, you will need to know three things:
1. What a clicker is and how it works
2. The effect this tool has on your dog and how it is used in the training process
3. How to use vocal tones and visual cues while training with a clicker
Understanding the ideas behind clicker training will also help you learn where and when clickers can be used in everyday canine activities. Clicker training is not just for basic obedience or problem solving. This tool is also used to teach working dogs their performance patterns. It opens up their ability to reason their way through obstacles and solve problems, as they figure out which behaviors would be rewarding and which will not.
WHAT IS A CLICKER?
A clicker is a noise-making device that was once a child's toy. The old ones are made entirely of metal and were often designed in bright colors and pleasing shapes, such as animals. To make the clicking noise, a flexible metal tongue in the middle is pressed down onto another piece of metal. The sound is best if the piece of metal is pressed and released quickly.
Clickers are currently made of plastic rectangular or oval boxes with a flexible metal piece in the middle that makes a distinctive sound. Clicker training has become so popular that you can obtain a clicker at most pet supply shops or from many catalogs and online stores.
Even though they are mass-produced, each clicker has its own unique sound. Because dogs can hear far better than humans, they can tell the difference, no matter how slight. That means in a class full of dogs and clicker trainers, your dog can still pick out the sound of your clicker.
It also means a clicker does not need to be used directly under a dog's nose. In fact, it's best not to point it at the dog at all. You can keep it behind your back or in a pocket. A muffled click is easier to accept than a loud, sharp click. Some dogs are easily frightened by loud noises, and clicking under their noses will disrupt the learning processes.
The clicker is not a target for your dog to point his nose at. It's also not a remote control, although it can sometimes seem like one, because once your dog sees you pick up the clicker he'll start doing things, possibly even at random, to try to earn rewards.
Collars, leashes, whistles, treats, and toys are all tools that help in the training process. A clicker is as much a training aid as a collar and leash. It's not used in the same way, but does help you communicate with the dog. The proper use of these tools creates a happy, well-adjusted dog who loves to work with you.
The clicker can be used alone, without other training devices, or in conjunction with them. The need for various tools depends upon the dog and the situation. (I will describe several training tools and their advantages and disadvantages in chapter 2.) However, in most quiet surroundings, where there is little distraction, nothing will be required besides you, your dog, the clicker, and the reward. There will be no need to contain, force, or coerce your dog's performance.
It will happen.
WHY USE A CLICKER?
A clicker is a way of letting your dog know when he has done the right thing. It acts as a bridge between Teddy doing what he was told and receiving his reward. It is an efficient way of relating this information quickly and distinctively.
Once you understand how to use a clicker, it proves more efficient than using your voice. That's because your voice is always in use. This isn't a bad thing, because you will need to use varying tones and specific words to communicate with your dog. However, since your voice is a constant sound in your dog's life, it doesn't offer a distinctive sound to reinforce a good response. This is important, because Teddy will be less confused if he receives notice of a good behavior the moment it occurs. Telling him "good boy" as he moves away from doing something you want only rewards him for moving away, not for doing what you had requested.
Here's an example. Let's say you want Teddy to sit. He does so, but then jumps up on you, his muddy paws redesigning your apparel. You had praised him, but not at the exact moment he sat. He received his praise as he was rising up to jump on you. Teddy has learned that the act of jumping up on you is rewarding but the act of sitting is not; therefore, he will continue to jump on you. Had you clicked when he sat, he would have learned that behavior was what you wanted, because he was rewarded for it and the act of jumping was not rewarded. The result would be a dog who sits for a reward instead of jumping up for it.
As this example illustrates, verbal praise doesn't always come at the right time. It is far more difficult to express praise in the proper tone of voice than it is to simply press on the clicker. Yes, you always carry your voice with you, whereas you don't always carry a clicker. But eventually you won't need to carry the clicker because your dog will respond properly to vocal and visual cues. When teaching your dog something new, however, it's best to offer a timely bridge to his proper response, and the clicker works best for this.
The sound of the clicker offers a nonemotional response. Regardless of the mood you are in, your dog receives a consistent bridge, thereby producing reliability. You can use the clicker from any position, any location, and under any environmental conditions. You can be sitting, standing, near, or far. You can be inside, outside, in a quiet yard, or a busy shopping mall. Your dog will learn to work for the sound of the clicker because he knows the sound will be followed by a reward. His mind will be fixed on offering a proper response to your cues.
HOW IS A CLICKER USED IN DOG TRAINING?
A clicker marks the moment your dog has done something good. Through conditioning, your dog will learn that the sound of the click means he will receive a reward. The reward can be food, a toy, touch, or any number of other actions. While many dogs are happy to work for their kibble, not all of them prefer food rewards, though most will work for a piece of hotdog, liver, steak, cheese, or chicken. A favorite toy can be substituted for the food, as can a rub on the head or chest.
When you teach your dog the meaning of a clicker, you need to stick to specific parameters. Changing your criteria will cause your dog to lose interest. The main parameter is that your dog receives a reward for every single click. Never click without giving your dog his reward.
You want for your dog to work for the sound, not ignore it. Giving him a reward each time will maintain his enthusiasm and motivation. It will also maintain clarity of communication between you and your dog. Think of it as making a deal with your dog: You must maintain your part of the bargain if you expect your dog to maintain his part.
There is a three-step pattern I use when teaching a dog.
1. Present a stimulus. A stimulus is something that will grab your dog's attention. A piece of food or a toy is a stimulus. To make the entire process easy, I use the stimulus as a lure. Once Teddy understands that you're holding something he wants, you can make him do anything. Your hand will become the stimulus, because it holds the lure.
2. As soon as Teddy pays attention to the stimulus and performs the correct action, click the clicker and praise.
3. Give Teddy the reward.
Lure, click, reward!
As your dog learns that the sound of the clicker means he will be receiving a reward, you will be able to gradually increase the time between the sound of the click and his receipt of the reward. However, maintain the deal you made with Teddy and always reward for every click.
As your dog learns the meaning of each cue (that is, each verbal command and/or visual signal), you will be able to reduce the use of the lure and replace it with a cue, thereby reducing the number of rewards given. When you get to this point, the sound of the clicker is in and of itself a reward.
USING VERBAL AND VISUAL CUES WITH A CLICKER
What is a cue? A cue is a signal that tells the dog to perform a specific command. This signal is learned by conditioning the dog to respond to it in a specific manner. The signal can be visual, verbal, or the presence of an object. If you don't know which to use, I'd suggest visual, because dogs are very visually oriented. As you progress, you can add verbal cues that can either mean the same thing or a different version of the behavior. For example, you can use a hand signal that means sit while also using the word. Or you can use the hand signal to mean sit in a specific location, while the word "sit" means merely to plop the rear wherever. The choice is yours, but always be consistent so you don't confuse yourself or your dog.
There is an art to using visual and verbal cues. The motion, or lack thereof, can help the dog quickly understand what you want. When using verbal cues, your tone also carries a lot of meaning. In fact, much can be communicated through body language and vocal tones. The ultimate goal of training is complete communication without the use of training aids.
While many clicker trainers prefer not to use the voice to convey cues, I have always used my voice to instruct and guide my dogs. I have yet to meet a dog who did not enjoy hearing the voice of their human companion(s). I guide with my voice from the very start of any training session.
In the beginning, you only use your voice when praising the dog. This gives the dog positive associations with your voice. When your dog does something you wish, you click and praise, then give him the treat. The praise will then have worth when you dispense with the clicker.
Once your dog understands a specific behavior, such as sitting, you add the word, "sit." This is a cue. Offering the word after the dog understands the exercise ensures that the cue is associated with the correct action, instead of with something else.
Most dogs learn very quickly. You should be able to add your vocal cues within three or four repetitions. Here's an example, in which you are teaching Teddy to sit.
He sits. You click and praise, then give him his reward.
He sits again. You click and praise, then give him his reward.
You repeat this four or five times.
You say, "Teddy, sit." He sits. You click and praise, then give him his reward.
After four or five repetitions, Teddy will fully understand the word "sit." You can test this by moving to different locations and giving him the sit command (cue). If he sits, you click and praise, then give the reward. If not, it doesn't mean he's being bad; it's simply that he hasn't yet associated the cue with the action. The lack of response might also be due to a change in location. Go back to the beginning, remaining close to your dog and reinforcing the behavior through more repetitions. Then begin adding the cue again.
As you see, there is no correction involved, merely clear communication and patience as your dog figures out what you want. It sometimes takes a little time to wake up your dog's thinking and reasoning processes. Once Teddy's wheels start turning, though, they go faster and faster.
You may have noticed that I always precede the command with the dog's name. This is important, because not only does it teach the dog his name, but it also gets his attention before you give the command. The command should only be given one time, and getting the dog's attention helps him understand that you are speaking to him and want him to do something. When you say his name, use a "come hither" tone of voice. Never say his name in a scary or intimidating manner. You want Teddy to love hearing his name, not to run in the other direction.
When you begin teaching Teddy to associate the clicker with rewards, you begin by simply saying his name. When he looks at you, you click and praise, then give him his reward. Now he'll have positive associations with his name. It's also the start of teaching him to come to you when you call him. The mere mention of his name will grab his attention.
Think of this process as trying to teach your dog a new language. Dogs don't come into the world knowing our language. Teddy speaks canine. You speak human. Speaking loud and slow won't help him understand. You need to bridge the language gap by showing your dog the meaning of each word. Repeating the word merely makes him believe that he does not need to respond until you say it ten times. By luring him into a behavior, repeating the action a few times, then adding the word for the action, you are teaching him the meaning of the word in a positive, associative manner. Teddy will be happy to oblige.
When using verbal cues, be sure to use words that are clearly differentiated from one another. This will help your dog discern the meaning of each word. Here's a list of sample words to use throughout the training process:
Heel (to walk with you or sit at your side in heeling position)
Stay (regardless of the position, the verbal and visual cues remain the same)
Swing (to return to heel position)
For tricks, again use clear cues, such as shake, roll over, sit pretty, speak, find, get, take, drop, and so on. The shorter and more concise the word, the faster Teddy will understand the meaning.
As your dog learns several behaviors, you can string the verbal cues together to form a chain. For example, if you wish your dog to come to you, sit, and then bark, the verbal cues are, "Teddy come, sit, speak," in that order, since that is how you wish it done. If you want him to bark first, you'll need to give that cue first.
Canine Vocal Tones
Dogs also use their voices to convey information. There are a variety of canine tones and vocalizations, and they differ according to the breed(s) of the dog. Some dogs do a "roo roo," while others have an "arroo." Some dogs howl and others bray. Only a dog of the same breed knows the real message, but there are several vocalizations that are universal in the dog world. Emulating them as closely as possible while teaching Teddy our words aids in bridging the language barrier.
I use three distinct tones that are based on these canine vocal tones. The first is a high, happy, enthusiastic tone, which is used with praise. When giving a command, I use a demanding tone. This is the equivalent of a loud bark. Please note that the demanding tone need not be loud or stern. Dogs hear very well and will respond better to a softly spoken word than one that is loud and harsh. The third tone is a low, growly tone, for correction. With clicker training, there is very little correction involved; mostly, this involves redirection and clarification of a cue. Since dogs aren't spiteful or malicious, your dog simply may not fully understand what you requested. Thus, you'll accomplish far more if you clarify your command than if you punish your dog for not doing what you asked. A low tone merely lets the dog know he should try something different.
Dogs also use a whimpering tone that means they are scared, stressed, or seek attention. This is probably not a good tone to use at any time, because you want Teddy to see you as leader of his pack, not as an injured, frightened puppy.
Dogs are very visually oriented and communicate with subtle visual cues. From the way they position their eyes, ears, and mouth to the level of their tails, every body movement has a distinct meaning. Using visual cues during training makes for clear communication. The tricky part will be teaching your dog to identify with the visual cues you wish to present, as opposed those you accidentally present. For example, suppose you wish your dog to identify the down command with your pointing downward. He not only sees that hand cue, but also how you are holding your body, the expression on your face, and the distractions around him. To be perfectly clear on the cue, you need to minimize as many other visual cues as you can. Begin the training in a quiet place and do lots of repetitions.