(by Brianne Statz, CPDT-KA)
Let’s try some clicker training! First, your dog needs to understand what the clicker means. The click is going to mark the instant your dog performs the behavior you like, and it tells your dog reinforcement is on the way. You teach your dog what the clicker means by simply clicking, then feeding a treat, clicking, then feeding a treat, etc. Your dog doesn’t need to be doing anything particular at this point – you’re just charging the clicker up. Do 3-4 repetitions, then take a break and repeat later. After a few times, you should see that your dog seems excited to hear the click (ears perk up, tail wags). Now you’re ready to start using the clicker to help you teach a behavior.
There are a couple different strategies to teach a new behavior. You can lure your dog by putting a treat right on his nose and moving it around – move it up and back and he sits, drop it to ground and he lies down, move it in a circle and he spins. And you click as soon as your dog achieves the behavior you want, and give the lure as a reward. While this is a great way to get things like sit or down trained quickly, you’re not engaging your dog’s brain very much. It’s easy for your dog to follow the food without really thinking too much about what it is that you want. Where the clicker becomes a really helpful tool is in capturing and shaping behavior.
Capturing means you just sit there as an observer of your dog, wait for him to do what you want, then click and treat. When you have something your dog wants (like a toy or a handful of treats), he’s likely to try to figure out what he can do to get that good stuff. Bark at you? Jump up? Lie down? Click! Yes – down is the behavior you wanted! The click tells your dog that down earned a reward, and he should want to repeat that behavior again. Here’s an example of a captured trick: Payton’s itchy
Capturing is a great way to teach a new skill. But for more complicated skills, you may also need to use shaping. Shaping refers to marking (clicking) an approximation of the desired behavior. As an example, take teaching your dog to go sit on a mat or bed. If your dog is not in the mood for a nap, he might not spontaneously go walk over and sit on the mat. But, he might turn his head toward that side of the room – click & treat! And once he figures out that side of the room is important, he might take a step over that way – click & treat! Then two steps – click & treat! One paw on the mat – click & treat! Four paws on the mat – click & treat! Sit on the mat – click & treat! By reinforcing steps in the right direction, you can keep the dog interested in figuring out what it is that you want. Essentially, your dog is working to make you click. Here’s an example of shaping: Joan’s mat
The more you can encourage your dog (or other pet!) to think about what you want, the better your dog will get at offering behaviors that please you, and the clicker is a great tool to help you and your dog reach that goal!