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Training with the “Clicker System”

In our digital age everything seems to be just a click away, and now you can even include dog training in that statement.

3/11/2010


In our digital age everything seems to be just a click away. You could even include dog training in that statement, though you don’t need a computer or even batteries. An old fashioned kid’s metal cricket clicker will suffice. It’s the “click” that makes the dog’s computer work.


According to Gary Wilkes, who runs www.clickandtreat.com, and now even veteran pointing dog trainers like George Hickox, the snap of a mechanical clicker causes a dog’s brain to “take a picture” of its behavior the instant it hears the click. It will remember this long enough (up to 15 seconds) for you to reward it with a treat, thus encouraging more of that behavior.


“The benefit is that you don’t have to reward the dog within the traditional 1.3 seconds dog behaviorists say is necessary for canines to associate the treat with the behavior,” Hickox explained. “You notify the dog with the click when he performs the right behavior, then reward him in a timely fashion. I like to do it within five seconds.”


The huge advantage in this style of training is that you are not forcing the dog to do anything unpleasant, so there’s no contest of wills. You simply reward and reinforce a behavior that the dog did more or less on its own.


“If behavior is reinforced, it increases,” Hickox noted.


Hickox uses tiny slices of hotdog as his reward because pups love them and can swallow them almost instantly. Hard treats take too long to chew. He stores the bits in a shotshell pouch on his belt.


In practice, clicker training works like this: You watch your pup for a desired behavior such as sitting. When she sits, you click, but be careful not to say anything. Give her a treat within five seconds, then repeat the process. Within 10 or 20 repetitions, most pups will make the connection between the click and the coming treat. Now you are free to mark any desired behavior with a click and to reinforce it. When it becomes consistent, overlay a voice command.


Say “sit” and, when the pup sits, click and provide a reward. Once the dog understands the command/click/treat process, you can phase out the treat and ultimately the click.


While “sit” is important for retrievers, “stand” is critical for pointing breeds. The process is similar. When your pointer pup stands up, click and provide a treat. If you wish to hurry things along, playfully position the pup in a sitting or laying position. When he stands, click and give him a treat. Later you’ll add the “stand” command.


The clicker system is also useful for getting a raw pup to climb onto a “whoa” training box, as demonstrated by Hickox. He walked the youngster around the box with a leash and tempted it by holding treats on the other side of the box. As soon as the pup put one paw on the box, he would click and treat. After a few clicks/treats, the pup was putting her foot up just to get the reward. Then came two feet, then all four. Inside of 10 minutes, the pup was volunteering to climb aboard the box.


With this tactic, you can teach nearly anything with less stress (to your dog as well as youself) than many systems, but your work isn’t finished. “You have to generalize the command and desired behavior so that the dog knows it extends to all places,” Hickox elaborated. “Dogs associate commands and behaviors to the location in which they were taught, often even if you’re consistent. So once the dog’s learned to sit on command in the kitchen, you need to expand this to the living room, to the yard, to a field and so on until the dog responds reliably every time and in every place.”


Once the pup knows a command, move on to negative reinforcements. “At some point your dog may decide he’d rather chase deer, for instance, than obey ‘whoa,’” Hickox said. “The deer becomes more of a treat. This is when you move to avoidance training or negative reinforcement. This can be anything your dog perceives as a negative. Examples include a spray of water, a rolled up towel tossed against him or stimulation from an e-collar.”


The good news for you and your charge is that negative reinforcements are needed less often with clicker-trained dogs because their behaviors are conditioned rather than forced responses. “I have to use my e-collars less often with clicker-trained students,” Hickox attested. 


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2 Responses to Training with the “Clicker System”

JRF wrote:
August 30, 2010

I have never used an ecollar. Only clicker training. of all my hunting buddies, my dog is the most well behaved of the group. I hope this catches on in the world of hunting dogs. there really is no need for the e collars, and anyone who tells you otherwise is ignorant.

paxillated wrote:
August 24, 2010

There is "clicker training (CT)," and there is "training with a clicker (TWC)." This article is about TWC. For the difference, read this: http://www.clickertraining.com/node/642 See Question 8 for a short definition of CT. CT (when done right) gets you a dog that is eager to train, pays close attention, & enjoys trying to figure out what you want. It works on all dogs including scenthounds & terriers. It is a HUGE change from traditional training. It rocked my training world just like my conversion from anti-gun to gun lover rocked my concept of self-defense. My coonhunting buddies were amazed that (for example) I could let my dogs out of the dogbox, say "wait," and then put the leads on, instead of getting into the usual wrestling match at the crate door. Yes, you'll find it used by the humaniacs. Don't let them taint it for you. It takes longer to "convert" a traditionally trained dog to CT, because it rocks their world, too. And it's even harder for us to get rid of our old habits. But it's worth it. Paxillated the dog trainer I'm an ex-liberal, ex-humaniac who learned how to think for herself.