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Q: The last time we had a dog, we went to a class that required a choke chain. That sweet dog is long gone, and we're starting class with our 6-month-old Queensland Heeler. But the local trainer says not to use a choke chain. She teaches with a "clicker." Is that better? — G.W., via e-mail
A: A clicker is a small plastic box that fits in the palm of your hand — a child's toy that's also called a "cricket." To make the noise, you press down on the metal strip inside the housing and quickly release it — click-click!
The clicker itself doesn't have any magic powers — what it provides is timing. It allows a trainer working with a dog who understands the game to let the pet know that the behavior he's doing right now is the one that's being rewarded. And that means the behavior will be repeated. The clicking noise becomes a reward, because in the early stages of training the sound is linked to the delivery of something a dog wants, most usually a tiny treat.
Does this sound familiar? If it rings a bell, that's because the underlying principal of clicker training is scientific and is called "operant conditioning" (Pavlov's drooling dogs and all). But you can be excused if you don't want to know the ins and outs of the science and just want to cut to the chase.
After all, your pet just wants to get to the good part, too.
You start by teaching your pet that a click means a treat. Pick a time when your pet isn't sleeping (not just after a meal) and is a little hungry (a couple of hours before a meal is best). Choose a relatively small, quiet place you can work without too many distractions, and prepare a pouch or bowl of tiny, yummy treats (diced hot dogs are popular, as are pieces of cheese or even bits of kibble). For the next few minutes, click and treat. One click, one treat. Again, and again, and again. Eventually your pet will show you he understands that the sound means food. For example, he may look immediately to the source of the treats after hearing the click.
When that happens, you're on to the next stage. But wait until your next session, because clicker training works best with a couple of short sessions — less than 10 minutes — every day.
When you're ready for round two, sit quietly with your clicker and treats ... and wait. Your dog should start volunteering behaviors — everything from sitting, to pawing, to wandering in a circle. When your pet chooses one you like, click, treat and wait again. Your dog will initially be confused but should eventually offer the behavior again. Be patient! When that moment comes, click, treat and wait again.
Say you clicked your dog a couple of times because he finally got bored and sat. Soon your dog will sit to test his theory that sitting means a click-treat. When that happens, click and "jackpot" him with a handful of treats. When the pattern is firmly established, you can then give it a name ("sit") and make the food reward more random to strengthen it (this is the principal that keeps you pulling the slot machine handle).
Clicker training isn't just an elementary education for your dog. In future sessions, you'll move on from the "sit" that your dog knows, waiting for more behaviors to click, treat and name as you build your pet's repertoire of commands. More complicated behaviors are trained by "chaining" (training in pieces and putting them together).
Never punish your pet for not "getting it right." Clicker training is all about the payoff, and once you get it mastered, there's no end to the things you can teach your dog to do.
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