Teach Silly Tricks Using Clicker

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Dogs are much smarter than we even dare to imagine. We think they are lazy because they seem content to sleep all day. But give them the opportunity to learn something fun and new and you will quickly have their complete attention.

Some behavior problems can be eliminated by challenging your dog to learn something new. Shy dogs will gain confidence and destructive dogs can channel their energies in new directions.

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This bow of Mr. Higgins looks very much like that morning stretch. But now he does it on command -- or most of the time.

Dogs can be taught some pretty amazing feats with clicker training. Assistance dogs are taught to turn on and off light switches, pick things up from the floor and open doors using the clicker.

The theory behind the clicker is that we click when the dog has made a move or an action that we want him to do. A new behavior is taught in stages. If we want the dog to back up across the room, we start by clicking when he moves his back feet just one step backward. Then we click when he moves back two steps. At first, he will not realize that moving those back feet backward is the action we are seeking. The click lets the dog know that what he has just done is what we want him to do. Praise and a wonderful treat always follow the click. The click can catch a precise movement -- that is the point.

Every morning when Higgins gets up, he stretches. I wanted to capture that act and use it as a bow. I had to be ready with the clicker and some great treats on the table in the bedroom. He only stretches once. When he stretched, I clicked, praised and treated. It took quite a few days for him to realize that I was rewarding something that he did automatically, this stretch move, and at that point, I put a name to it. "Bow." Now when I say "bow," he is more than happy to oblige. Once the action is learned, the clicker is eliminated.

Would you like to teach your dog to play basketball? The little plastic children's hoop works great. The first step is to teach him to hold the ball, which is only used for basketball practice, in his mouth. At first you click and treat when he holds it for a second. Then teach him to hold it longer -- before you click and treat. The next step is to teach him to drop the ball on command. Another click and treat step. Finally, hold this hoop in front of him and tell him to drop the ball so that it goes into the hoop. Click and treat. Once the dog learns that the point is to drop the ball into the hoop, you can move the hoop further away or a little higher so that the dog has to reach for it. Patience is required for this one.

Clicker training is fun and challenging. Once you learn the concept, you will figure out ways to teach all sorts of fun things. Keep training sessions short and always end with a success. If the dog is not quite doing the action you were hoping for, go back a step or two until he does succeed and then quit for the day with treats and praise. Play for a few minutes at the end of each training session. Tug toys are great for this playtime and they are terrific relaxers. This particular tug toy should be used only after training.

Too often, dogs have been taught with jerks and harsh voice commands. Obedience training and teaching amazing tricks and feats are most successful and enjoyable when the training is fun. If the dog is having fun, he will learn quickly and be willing and eager to learn more. He will beg for class time to begin.

An aside, I wrote a column some time ago about Rita Givens and her assistance dog, LaLa. Rita has had to retire LaLa due to the dog's medical problems. LaLa now has to stay at home and both of them are so very sad. A partnership with an assistance dog is amazingly strong. You depend on him or her for every day living and it is terribly difficult for both when the team can no longer work together. If you see Rita, cheer her up.

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