The first thing I teach all my students is how to get and keep their dog’s attention. After all, how can we expect our dogs to come to us, to stay, or obey any command if they are paying us no mind.
If you are thinking of trying clicker training, this is a great place to start.
All suggestions in this article are given using a clicker, a little plastic box that makes a click noise when pushed. However, you could substitute a very enthusiastic word “yes!” for the click. Using a clicker we mark the dogâ€™s behavior that we want to reward. One click always equals one treat.
Charging the clicker
If you have never used a clicker before you first have to teach your dog what they are all about. You start by just clicking and treating several times. Never be stingy with you C/T’s (click then reward with a treat), and always use extra high value yummy food rewards. Small pieces of hot dogs work great.
To help your dog understand what clicking is all about usually only takes a few minutes. All you do is C/T several times in rapid succession. Be sure when your dog is first learning that you follow with a treat rapidly after the click. Over time as your dog learns what clicking is all about, a click will buy you time and you will have a bit longer to produce the treat. Keep in mind that when you are charging the clicker, your dog does not have to do anything, just eat! Resist the urge to say anything at all.
If you have envied well-trained dogs who never take their eyes off of their handler, please read on. Reactive dogs or dogs with behavior problems also benefit greatly from attention exercises.
A top rule of dog training is to always set yourself up for success. You can teach watch me on a leash, or even better take your dog to a small room. Stand upright and be ready to C/T the split second your dog looks at you in the eye. Do several short 5 minute sessions of this every day.
Once your dog understands that looking at you reaps rewards, you can then put it on cue. Say command “watch” one time. If your dog does not look to you, add a kiss noise or funny sound that gets her attention. Do not repeat this command more than one time.
Be generous with treats. Most people make the mistake of not rewarding fast or often enough. Keep those C/Tâ€™s coming and catch your dog being good. You should also catch your dog looking at you and say their name and C/T simultaneously. This will teach your pup to offer voluntary attention.
Gradually add distraction but be careful not to over face your dog with too much stimulation too soon. Dogs do not generalize well, and remember if they learned something in the kitchen you need to practice it everywhere. Try attention games first in different rooms of your home before you take it on the road.
If you find your dog starts to beg and carry on, don’t despair. Your dog is “throwing” behaviors at you. They are trying to figure out what it is that will make you pay off. You have just become your dogâ€™s personal slot machine. That is great! You want your dog to learn to think for itself. Clicker trained dogs are fun to work with and learn how to learn. They are very willing to please. If your dog gets too pushy, just ignore them and end the session.
One click can also equal one jackpot. A jackpot is several high value treats given rapidly in a row with lots of verbal praise for a job well done. We always end our dogs’ training on a good note and a jackpot is a great way to end a training session. You can also add a game of tug or ball if your dog really enjoys it.
If you are using a lot of food treats during the day for training, be sure to feed less at meal times.
Photo: Finney, my Smooth Collie at 5 months of age