Very Basic Clicker Training

I clicker train Rakki. Clicker training is operant conditioning based on positive reinforcement (with food, toys or games being the motivation), and is pretty much exactly the same sort of training used in zoos and marine parks to train wild animals and sea mammals. When you see the Orcas jump up and touch a ball, then the trainer blows a whistle and gives the whale a fish - that's operant conditioning, and differs very little from what I do at home. As more than one clicker advocate has said, we've known about this kind of training, and its effectiveness, for decades, we use it on all manner of captive wild animals (animals which are too big or too aquatic to be manhandled), and it's only within the last decade or so that some people have been applying it to our closest animal companions. Any animal can be clicker trained, including cats, ferrets and fish. It's fun and rewarding for the animal, and in the case of dogs anyway, they really "buy into" the training, far more so than with most regular training methods.

I trained my previous dogs with more "traditional" methods, and have been very surprised by how different the dog's training experience is with clicker training. Rakki enjoys our training so much that he will actually come and get me for training sessions - he'll stare at me, then stare at the clicker, then back at me, until I get up and train. Who's got who trained?

I'm no expert, but here's some basic things you can try with your dog. You do not have to use a clicker (although they're only a couple of dollars at most any pet store), you can use your voice (pick a word like "yes", and try hard to say it exactly the same way each time), but the clicker seems to work better, and has the added advantage of not only sounding exactly the same each time, but it has no emotional content whatsoever, which means your dog (or cat, or ferret) doesn't have to waste mental energy on anything but figuring out how to get that treat! Try one session, see if you aren't surprised.

You will need: a clicker (or your voice), a supply of very yummy treats in small pieces (I use bits of turkey hotdogs, cooked chicken, liver - but use anything you know your pet REALLY likes), and a target stick (this can be anything from a length of doweling to an extending pointer - anything - mark the end with a marker or put some colored tape on it). I like to keep my treats in a bowl nearby or in a bait pouch, I don't want to hold them in my hand unless I'm using them to lure the dog into a position I want (like "sit").

Step one: "Charging the Clicker" - this is the most important step, so don't skip it and don't scrimp on time. This is the step where you teach your pet that the click sound means that they're getting a treat. All you do is click the clicker once (press and release once, to make a fast double "click-click" sound), then give the pet a treat. Do this at least ten times. Just click-treat, click-treat, click-treat. Until your pet is really into the clicker training, do a quick charge up of the clicker at the start of every training session. So that YOU understand - what you're clicking for is to tell the animal that the behaviour they've just performed has earned them a reward. Once you start actual training (not charging) the timing of the click becomes vital, the timing of the treat less so, as long as it follows the click within a reasonable time. The click is what you use to "mark" the behaviour as it happens.

Step two: "Targeting" - this is where you actually train something! Sit on the floor, hold the clicker in one hand, and the target stick in the other, with the tip pointing away from you. On the off-chance that your pet is scared of the stick, hold it higher up, so that just a small amount is protruding from your hand. Now, sit and wait. Odds are good that your pet will look at, sniff or otherwise move toward the stick. As soon as this happens, click and treat.
(more to come...)