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.