By Carolyn Menteith
Imagine you are trying to pick a school for your child. Would you be impressed by a teacher who shouted, screamed and hit the pupils for not grasping the finer points of quantum physics? Or would you prefer a teacher who encouraged the children to enjoy learning and helped them realise their potential to be exceptional adults?
Choosing a way to train your dog presents exactly the same dilemma. You either go for the old-fashioned Barbara Woodhouse approach of jerking on the choke chain and shouting rather terrifyingly in a tweed skirt, or you can cherish the relationship you have with your friend and treat him as you would a child.
There are many methods of reward-based training but the one that is talked about most is clicker training. With all the furore in the dog press recently, you would think clicker training is something new and difficult. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Clicker training has been around for years and anyone can do it.Clicker training began when dolphin trainers looked at the way dogs were traditionally trained and they knew this just wasn't going to work for them. For example, when trainers wanted a dog to sit, they would pull his head up with the choke chain while pushing his bottom down until the poor dog finally buckled and his bottom was forced onto the ground - at this point he would have "sit" shouted in his ear. Dolphin trainers just couldn't push and shove their charges into the right position - imagine trying to teach jumping through a hoop!The next problem was punishment. While dog trainers were quick to half-throttle an errant dog while shouting abuse, dolphin trainers knew their subjects would swim away - there is no way to punish a dolphin if you can't catch it! And while dog trainers could force their charges to endure training by restraining them on a lead, if a dolphin was not enjoying itself, it would just swim off. Finally dolphin trainers had to find a way to let the dolphin know exactly when it did something right - even if it was at the other side of a pool. If they waited until the dolphin came back to give it a fish, it had no idea what it was being rewarded for.
So they had to come up with a no-pushing and prodding, no-punishment, enjoyable, fun, easy-to-understand method of training. And so clicker training was born.
All you need is a small plastic box with a metal tongue inside that makes a distinctive click when you press it. This is going to become your dog's 'reward'. Every time he gets something right, he hears a click and that means "well done, you will get a treat for doing that."The clicker gives you the ability to reward exactly what you want - almost like being able to take a snapshot of a particular behaviour instead of the usual rather vague 'good boy, here's a pat and a treat' which usually leaves your dog wondering what bit you actually liked. There is no way a dog can make a mistake in clicker training - the only 'punishment' is that he doesn't get a treat and must try again.
Clicker training is a perfect way to train all dogs - but PONS make particularly good subjects, as they will do anything for food and they enjoy working out how to get it!! Using this method the dog learns very early on that training is fun and looks forward to his next chance to show off!
So how do you achieve this miracle? Easy.
First you must make the link in your PON's mind between the click and the reward. To do this take some easy to eat, high value treats (such as liver cake or chicken), sound the clicker once and immediately give the dog a treat. (Remember this is not a TV remote control, it doesn't need to be be 'fired' at the dog which some find intimidating.) Repeat this several times until the dog starts to look for the treat after every click. In some dogs this may be after only a few clicks, in others it can take several sessions. Don't worry how long it takes - all dogs learn at different speeds and often those who take the longest to pick things up, learn them more thoroughly.
Once this lesson is learned, you are ready to start training.
The sit is always a good first exercise to teach - dogs sit naturally and so you are not teaching him anything he wouldn't do normally. Take a piece of food and hold it right in front of your dog's nose. When he is interested in it, raise your hand upwards and backwards over your dog's head until his head comes up and his bottom lowers to the ground. As soon as the bottom touches the ground, click and give him the treat. Repeat this a few times until the dog knows what you want him to do and sits without much 'luring'. When this is happening (don't rush it), start to get rid of the lure and get your dog to use his brain instead. Take a piece of food and just wait. It will not take long for your dog to realise that when he sat last time he got the food, and to try that again. If he does, click and give him a handful of treats. If he doesn't, tease him a little with the food, change position and wait. Be patient and wait as long as it takes - even the dumbest dog works it out eventually and when it comes to food, PONs aren't dumb! As soon as he sits, click and give him the treat.
Now your PON has come to the wonderful conclusion, he is training you - if he can work out how to get you to do that click thing, he will get a treat - easy and fun!Once your dog has got this worked out, you can sometimes only click after the dog has sat twice in a row, or even three times - this will have the effect of making the dog sit even faster with a 'I did it, didn't you see? - I'll do it again, look - give me my treat' attitude. Keep the dog guessing as to when the click will come but don't make it too difficult - keep going back to clicking and treating every time.
During all of this, do not speak - you will only confuse the dog who has no idea what 'sit' means anyway. So when does the cue word come in? Only when you would be happy to bet a week's wages that your dog will sit the second you want him to. If you introduce the cue word too early, all the dog will learn is that 'sit' means 'look around for a bit, shuffle, look around a bit more, and finally, after your owner has said 'sit' a few more times, put your bottom on the ground'. When you are ready to introduce the cue word, do it quietly just as your dog is sitting. Within only a few short lessons, your dog will reliably sit when you ask. Congratulations - you have successfully clicker-trained your dog to sit.
Using this method you can train all other exercises in the same way. Digby is a master now, after two years of clicker training (having achieved his Bronze, Silver and Gold clicker awards from Canine Film Academy - sort of drama school for dogs!!). As well as all the basics, he can wave, die, switch on lights, find the remote control, carry his own suitcase, shut doors (he's locked me out twice!) and a whole host of other things. He never really saw the point in traditional training - where was the fun? But learning while you get fed - that is really the Polish way! He looks forward to his training and is always eager to learn new things - he never fails to amaze me how bright he is, now that he sees the point.
RULES FOR CLICKER TRAINING
There are very few rules to follow but these must be stuck to if the clicker is to be effective
If you click, you must treat - even if you click in the wrong place. The clicker only works because it indicates a treat will follow - if the dog doesn't believe this, the clicker has no meaning
Only use the clicker to reward a good behaviour. It is not there to get your dog's attention or to be a command.
Always train when you are feeling positive - if you find yourself getting frustrated or annoyed, stop and try again later.
Reduce your dog's food intake to take into account the treats he's getting - or there will be consequences in his waistline.