How To Get Started With Clicker Training

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Last week's column provided a brief overview of the origins of clicker training. Karen Pryor, a pioneer in working with sea animals, realized that what she learned training dolphins could be transferred to other animals. In her book, "Clicker Training for Dogs," Karen said, "Clicker training is dog trainers' slang for a positive reinforcement training system based on operant conditioning, a set of scientific principles describing the development of behavior in which the animal "operates" on the environment, instead of the other way around."

She continued, "Operant conditioning goes to the root of how animals learn in the natural world, therefore the principles can be applied in any circumstance."

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Use a touch stick to begin clicker training. At first, touch the dog's nose very gently with the stick. Gradually, move it further away and when the dog moves to touch it, immediately click and treat.

Clicker training relies totally on reinforcers. Positive reinforcers are things the animal likes such as tug toys, treats or scratches behind the ears. A behavior learned through clicker training will stay with the animal throughout his lifetime unless you alter it. Once the behavior is learned and a cue is added, a word or a hand signal, you no longer need to click and treat that behavior.

Too much dog training is done with force and stern corrections. We jerk on the leash and choke collar and push the dog into a desired position. The dog eventually responds in order to avoid the harsh treatment. Neither the dog nor the trainer has a good time. On the other hand, according to Pryor, with positive reinforcement, the dog becomes eager, attentive, precise, cooperative and capable of fantastic performances.

A leash and collar are not needed for clicker training. Positive reinforcement training methods are now widely used in the training of zoo animals, law enforcement dogs and even young athletes. Dogs are willing subjects of clicker training because it is fun and they love the attention they receive in the process.

So how does one get started? A clicker is essential. Clickers are available at pet stores for under $2. To begin, click the clicker, but not too close to the dog's ears.

He needs to get used to the sound. Every time you click, give the dog a tasty morsel. At this point you are not asking for a behavior, but only letting him know that every time he hears the clicker, he will get a treat.

This should be a special treat used only for training. I use liver that I boil, cut up into quarter-inch squares and bake in a slow oven until they are dried out a little. Since I am handling them, I do not like them gooey. I sometimes use turkey hot dogs that are quartered lengthwise and then sliced. I also bake these but not for long.

Training treats should be delicious but small. We don't want to fill the dog up before the training session is finished. I have big dogs and they are most willing to work for these tiny treats.

Once the dog has learned that the click means that he will get a treat, you will notice him looking forward to hearing the sound. Now, we begin asking for a behavior.

I like to start with a touch stick. This can be any kind of a stick, even a pencil. I use one of those pointers you can get at an office supply store because they can be pulled out to longer lengths, yet fold up for carrying in the pocket. Begin with the tip of the pointer between your thumb and finger. Gently touch the dog's nose with the pointer and then click and treat. When he is comfortable with this, which should just take a few touches, move the pointer an inch away from his nose. When his nose moves toward the pointer, click and treat. If he will not touch the pointer after a few tries, rub the end of it with some smelly liver. Each time he touches it, click and treat. Gradually move the clicker further away. When he consistently touches the pointer, put a cue word with it. I use "touch."

Eventually, you can hold the extended pointer several feet away or raised in the air. The dog will move and jump to touch it.

Click and treat.

Finally, have the pointer sticking out of a jar or can and move it slowly away from you. In time, the dog will go across the room to touch the pointer and then come back for his treat. Click the second that his nose touches the end of the pointer. Once he has learned the behavior, refine it. Do not let him mouth the pointer and only click and treat when he touches the very end of the pointer. It is fun to watch the dog when he suddenly realizes what you want and can continue to do it and get a click and treat.

Always end training sessions with successes. If your dog is not catching on to the new behavior, go back to something that he can do well and click and reward generously. When the session is finished, put the treats, pointer and clicker away. These should be used only for training.

The touch command can be transferred for many practical uses such as closing a door or turning on a light. What animals are capable of learning is totally amazing. They love the fun and challenge of clicker training.

With positive reinforcement, incredible results are achieved with cats, dogs and even chickens. The pigs in the movie "Babe" were trained with clickers and positive reinforcement.

-- Christy Powers can be reached by e-mail at cpwrather@earthlink.net or by snail mail at HC1 Box 210, Strawberry, AZ 85544.

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