Learn to Teach your Dog with a Click // Clicker Training 101

Maybe you’ve seen it on the shelf at the pet shop, or seen the word mentioned in puppy training books. The clicker is a small plastic box that emits a loud popping sound when pressed. It is a simple but powerful communication tool and a positive way to condition your dog to new behaviors or tasks. Sound crazy? Let me explain.

The Psychology Behind the Clicker 

The concept of the clicker is based on the psychological phenomenon known as “conditioning”, as discovered by Pavlov in his famous experiments with dogs during the early 20th century. He found that when he consistently paired food with the sound of a metronome, the dogs began to salivate, I.E. expect food at hearing the metronome alone. Clicker training makes use of this concept by teaching the dog to associate the sound of the clicker with a treat. This is your first step in introducing the training tool to your dog. 

What Kind of Food Rewards Should I Use?

Because clicker training is fast moving and based on repeated rewards for desired behaviors, you want something small, low calorie, and easy to gobble down in a second. You may choose to use pieces of your dog’s normal kibble, a brand of commercial training treats, or small bits of plain chicken. Whatever you choose, make sure to think about how much they will be taking in during each session and calculate that into their meals for the day to avoid weight gain.

Teaching Your Dog to Love the Clicker 

Be aware that some dogs may have sensitivity to the loud noise of the clicker at first. If you suspect this may be an issue for your pup, start off by simply taking out the clicker and feeding them when they see it. Once they seem excited when it comes out, progress to feeding them at the exact moment you press the clicker. The timing is very important here. Your dog needs to know that this sound always means a treat.

Connecting the Clicker with Desired Behaviors 

Once your dog understands that the clicker means something tasty, you can begin to use it as a marker for desired behaviors. The moment your dog hears the clicker, he will assume that whatever he is doing will result in an immediate reward. For example, if you would like to teach your dog to sit, the minute you observe your dog exhibiting this behavior, speak your chosen command, click and immediately feed. He will quickly learn that sitting in response to your cue is an exciting and beneficial thing to do.

*A word of warning though. It is very easy to accidentally reenforce negative behaviors if your clicker game is a little off. If you are slow on clicking when your dog sits, and instead click a few moments later when he has decided to jump up on you instead, he will learn that jumping is the thing that will get him a click and a treat. During training sessions, you must keep the clicker and food reward ready so that you can mark desired behaviors the instant they happen, not too early, and not too late. That said, if you are a few moments late in clicking and your dog is still doing the thing you would like him to do, that is perfectly fine. In fact, delayed clicking may even come in handy as a technique to teach sustained tasks, such as a down stay.

Short Sessions and Small Steps 

Training sessions can be demanding for both you and your dog. Try to keep them short (10 to 15 minutes) and consistent (once or a few times a day). Particularly when teaching more complex tasks, make use of a technique called “shaping” by rewarding small progressions toward whatever final behavior you are looking for. For instance, if you are working on the “stay” command, you might start by clicking and treating after a shorter period, and progress gradually to longer and longer spans of time. Or, if you are working on teaching your dog to pick items up off the floor, you might start by clicking and treating when they merely look at or sniff the object you want them to eventually retrieve.

Teaching the “Touch” Command with the Clicker 

So, you’ve got the basic theory down. Let’s put it into practice by teaching your dog a useful little command called “touch”. When you ask your dog to “touch”, he should eventually bop your closed fist or palm, depending on your preference, with his nose. This command is simple, but has three great uses.

1. Focus. If your dog is distracted by something and behaving poorly, you can use “touch” to get his attention quickly back on you.

2. Movement. It can be an incredibly easy and effective way to maneuver your dog without pulling the leash. Just put your hand where you want your dog, tell him touch, and he will be there in a flash if he knows there’s a click and treat coming. 

3. A fun game. Your dog might need to get some energy out on a rainy day. You can use the touch command for a fun challenge for your dog. Put your fist all sorts of different places for him to find and bop. Here you can start asking him for a few touches in a row and reward only after several successes.

Here are the steps 

1. Start your session in a low distraction environment with your clicker and treat pouch ready and available.

2. Put your touching hand (I use the right as I usually have my dog’s leash in my left hand) somewhere your dog can reach it. Wait until he investigates your hand by sniffing it. If he doesn’t do this right away, you can shape the behavior by first rewarding him when he looks at your hand, or put a treat in your hand to give him an incentive to come close and sniff. Don’t give the treat to him until you have marked the behavior with the clicker. Click and treat as soon as he makes contact with your hand.

3. Once he is consistently making any sort of contact with your hand using his nose, pair the behavior with the word “touch”. Click and treat when he responds appropriately.

4. Start to click and treat only for his more insistent contact. Ignore any less than passable “bops”, and wait to reward his best ones. Make sure that he is bringing his nose to your hand, and not the other way around.

5. Repeat this process until he is giving you the exact sort of bop you want… pretty enthusiastic, firm, but still with his nose, not teeth.

6. Practice refining this command by moving your hand to different locations on your body or around the room, and then progressing to higher distraction environments. Remember always to keep your dog on a lead or in an enclosed area outdoors unless you are certain that his recall is rock solid even with distractions present.

Et Voila!

You have learned to train your dog with a click. For more posts on dogs, look for the “related posts” header on this page, or click here.

My Girls’ Canine Family!

Recently, I got to chat with someone from Guiding Eyes who shared the family information for both of my guide dogs.

Oleta was born on October 23, 2009 to parents Loren and Mark.  Her siblings in birth order are:

Orchard (released)

Osa (released, but became a different sort of service dog)

Bailey (released)

Oak (retired guide dog)

Oleta (retired guide dog)

Opera (released)

Ogden (retired guide dog)

Octavian (released)

Prim was born on October 21, 2015 to parents Peter and Daphne.  Her siblings are:

Peyton (in training)

Promise (released)

Posh (released)

Peace (working guide dog)

Parker (released)

Pongo (detection dog)

Pearl (working guide dog)

Prim (working guide dog)

Pumkin (working guide dog)

It’s great to know where my sweet girls came from.  I’m hoping we can meet some of Prim’s siblings!  We already know her sister Pumpkin, who was in training when we were in class in September.  It was pretty clear they knew that they are sisters, judging by how much they wanted to play together every time they saw each other. ❤

So thankful to Guiding Eyes for breeding, raising, and training so many fantastic dogs.

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 12|Yorktown…1781

We visited Yorktown on Friday.  No no, not Yorktown like from Hamilton, Yorktown, New York.  I know.  These things can get confusing.  Friday was our day for night travel, so we did the route in the daylight early in the morning, then repeated it after the sun went down that night.  In between we had our visits with the vet.

Prim was very excited about the new route, so we worked on, you guessed it, steady.  She did the route very well, only overstepping one curb and not at all distracted by the grass and street furniture that we passed.  We encountered one loud truck that she stopped for, even though we were on the sidewalk.  She was just being a bit cautious, I think leftover from our traffic check activity on Thursday.  The night route went similarly, other than the fact that it was dark, but that didn’t change much about my perspective really.  Our trainer huffed and puffed behind us like usual, and we had a blast.

At the vet, I learned Prim’s weight, birth date, and health history.  The vet gave her a full physical, and pronounced her healthy but for a slight ear infection in one ear.  She will be on medication for that for the next several days and we will visit the vet a second time before we leave to make sure it is all cleared up… which reminds me.  I need to choose a vet for Prim in Nashville.  If anyone has any good recommendations, please let me know.  Oleta had a vet in Nashville that we loved and appreciated, but I would be interested in looking into others.  Crazy, but I do need to start thinking about getting settled in at home.  Only a week left of training now!

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 11|Pizza

To continue the theme of food in titles this week…

Thursday was our country-travel/picture day.  Country travel is the term we use to refer to traveling on roads without sidewalks.  Our dogs are trained to walk on the left side of the road, but with no specific borderline on the other side it is easy to accidentally drift into the middle of the road from time to time.  So, we use a technique called “shore-lining”, which means my dog does her best to keep the curb line directly on our left, and every once in a while (or when I hear a car coming) I check our distance from the curb or grass line by telling her “Wait. Left, to the curb.”  When we arrive at the curb, whether that be one step later or five, she gets an enthusiastic “yes” and a treat.

Prim did fabulously.  There were no distractions, and most times when I asked her to go to the curb, we were right on top of it.  She showed me a big truck in our way at one point and we went around it then returned to the shoreline.  She was pulling like crazy, so we did have to work on steady some, because my arm was hurting haha.  Again, a problem I am okay with having.

In the afternoon, Prim and I got “gussied up”, as one of my instructors put it, for our ID and class pictures.  The class picture was interesting, with 13 humans and their 13 dogs as well as six instructors attempted to get in the frame and get settled.

“Say pizza!” our photographer told us… so we all called out “pizza!” at random intervals while he snapped photo after photo.  I found the whole thing very entertaining.  After that, we trooped into the hallway to wait for our individual pictures with our dogs.  I was second to go, so it wasn’t long before Prim and I got to hop onto the table together and pose for our photo op.  Prim sat very primly and looked right at the camera.  She is super photogenic.  I think it came out well.

To close out our day of training, we had a traffic check activity followed by lecture.  For the traffic check activity, the trainers set up a narrow isle that could only fit one guide dog team at a time.  At one end was the opening entrance, and at the other a door, which served as motivation for the dogs to continue down the shoot.  The first time we went down, we simply told our dogs forward, arrived at the door, and treated our dogs.  When we returned to the entrance, we instructed our dogs to walk forward into the shoot, and one of the trainers pushed a cart directly at us.  The only safe response in that situation is for the dog to back up to a safe distance, wait for the cart to clear away, and then continue down the isle way.  Prim did so beautifully.  The third time we walked through, a trainer drove the cart in front of us horizontally.  In that case, the dog must stop, wait for the cart to pass, and then continue to the door.  Again, Prim executed it perfectly.  Given this activity and several real life situations where we have had traffic checks, I feel very safe with Prim in traffic, and in grocery stores… which is good, because drivers of both cars and carts are crazy in Nashville.  You can handle’m Prim!

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 9|Chocolate

Tuesday we worked some different routes in White Plains. The first one we worked with our normal instructor to and from Dunkin’ Donuts. Prim made a clearance error around a trashcan, but in all fairness, it was a super tough situation. There was a woman coming at us with a baby carriage walking at a good clip, and at the same time there was a trash can on our left, part of which stuck out above Prim’s level, so although she could get around herself and she thought she had me cleared, I wasn’t quite.  The funny part was the trash can was on wheels, so of course it started rolling away when I ran into it and my trainer had to grab it and get it to stay still again.  She had to repeat the process several times, as it would not stay still!  Oh the strange things that happen out on route!

Prim did really well getting through a non-linear area with a fountain and some trees, and slowing down for the door into Dunkin which wasn’t all the way open.  Rather than just trying to run us through the small opening, she stopped to show it to me so that we could squeeze through together.  At the counter, I used the “touch” command to position her in front of me and against the counter so that she was out of the way.  I got a chocolate donut, then we scampered off back to White Plains to consume the deliciousness.  As a side note, my classmates tell me I’m not allowed to have chocolate, because it has caffeine, and sugar… but I don’t think my trainer was aware of that rule so I got away with it! *Insert evil laugh here* Chocolate chocolate chocolate!

🙂

During our route in the afternoon, we worked with a different trainer who was filling in for our class supervisor that day.  She is so chatty and funny. She described Prim’s body language as we worked. Her ears were pinned a little bit back, tail in the middle and out, she said she looked very relaxed and confident, and a bit like an arrow.  We walk fast enough to be one, she said.  Haha.

Prim full on ran me into a pedestrian, so that was awkward.  We were coming up from a street crossing and, from what our trainer said, she had seen the pedestrian, thought she was going one way, but turned out she went another and we collided.  We made our way to a bus shelter and used the clicker to teach her to target it with the word “bus”.  She had it down in no time.  I seriously can’t wait to get this dog home and start learning targets around our home environment.  She is going to be fabulous.

Prim was right on with curbs this time.  She is a quick learner, and we have ended up with our feet in the street far less frequently in recent trips.  Our guest trainer said we looked great—much more like we were in the third week of class than in the beginning of the second.  That’s very exciting to hear!

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 8|A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White Plains Building

There are days I just have to step back and marvel at the incredible phenomenon that is the guide dog team.  Dogs don’t naturally walk in straight lines.  They don’t naturally refuse to chase other animals or deny themselves food lying on the ground.  Most dogs don’t want to spend their days forging a path through pedestrians on crowded sidewalks, locating curbs, and playing in traffic… and yet these dogs do.  They love their job, and most, if not all guide dogs, seem to realize at one point or another that they aren’t just doing this for the food reward.  These are the sort of dogs that Guiding Eyes breeds, raises, and trains, and I feel so blessed to be able to experience life with now two of them.

Prim had a number of things thrown at her today.  It is only our sixth day together and we had two major traffic checks, plus a skateboard check (yep, skateboard. You read that correctly), escalators, crowded, narrow sidewalks, indoor work, and major distractions in the dog food isle at CVS.  That “major distraction” took the form of my class supervisor (who is also Oleta’s trainer and my instructor from 2011) tempting Prim with all sorts of very appealing squeaky toys while we did puppy push ups (sit, down, sit, down, sit, down, sit).  It was pretty hard not to look, and she definitely did struggle to listen to a couple of my commands, but we got through it well enough.  Honestly… can you imagine trying to concentrate while people danced around you with Chic-Fil-A and gift cards for pedicures and the latest technology gizmos, or whatever tempting treat might strike your fancy, and be expected to keep working at the same high performance without ever lunging for one of those waffle fries or gift cards or iPhones?  Mm… Chic-Fil-A… I discovered today that Chic-Fil-A doesn’t exist in this area, bless their hearts.  Anyway, what was I talking about?

Prim handled it all very well.  I was impressed with the way she dealt with the traffic checks.  One was on the left side of the street with a legal right turner.  She saw it coming ahead of time and stopped about ten feet away from the car.  The second was a car turning very illegally on the wrong side of the road.  That was slightly more startling to me as it was completely unexpected, but Prim just came to an abrupt halt, let the car pass, and continued to the curb.  It didn’t seem to throw her at all.  She got a cookie and lots of praise upon reaching the sidewalk.  She did her job very well.

Prim loves escalators.  I am sure that her trainers used a great deal of positive reenforcement with them, as they can be scary for some dogs at first, but I think Prim also just likes the ride.  She did very well pulling me to the edge of the metal plate and showing me exactly where the escalator started.  She is brilliant with targets.  When she hears the name of a familiar target (like the steps in this case) and recognizes it, she is there and fast, and she doesn’t stop pulling until we are all the way on top of it.  Since I have practically no vision, this is extremely helpful for me, because she makes it very clear where whatever I am looking for is, whether it be the curb, the escalator, the door, etc.

We are still working on slowing down a tad in certain situations.  For example, when we entered the CVS in the afternoon, we were moving so quickly the automatic doors didn’t quite have a chance to open all the way, so I got clipped by the still slightly closed sliding door.  We also had to slow in the isles so as not to knock any displays or innocent bystanders to the floor.  On our way back from CVS, we had a slight sniffing distraction with some trash cans (which, in her defense, did smell very strongly!), but as my instructor observed, Prim seems very responsive to my voice and a “Prim, leave it” was all she needed to get going again.

Shortly after that we crossed a street, made a right, and then I felt Prim angle over to the left a bit toward a building.  She approached the wall of the building, then made a quick right and continued along the block.  I wasn’t sure what had happened, until my instructor came up from behind to inform me that Prim had seen herself in a glass wall.  Apparently, Prim got all puffy and upset like, “who’s that over there?!”, until she realized it was her own reflection, got embarrassed, and quick changed her direction like, that didn’t just happen.  We laughed all the way back to the White Plains building.  There are days you have to marvel at the incredible phenomenon that is the guide dog team, and then there are days you just have to laugh… and with Prim, that’s every day.  This dog cracks me up.

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017) | Meet Oleta’s Young Padawan!!!

And now the post you have all been waiting for.  This is Oleta’s Young Padawan.  She is a black lab female named Prim!Prim in my Lap

So far, her nicknames include Primrose, Primie, Prie, Piglet, Primlet, and Wild Woman upon occasion.  She may be small, but have no doubt, she *IS* mighty.  There is an incredible amount of power, personality, and intelligence packed into that little bundle of fur on my lap.  My class supervisor (and Oleta’s trainer) told me that she had “hand-picked a nice one” for me.  She wasn’t kidding.  She did pick a nice one!

She has big paws to fill as Oleta’s successor, but so far she is doing brilliantly.  I was immediately in love with her name, and I’ve totally fallen for her.  How could you not?! ❤ ❤ ❤

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 7|Rest Day

Sunday was our rest day.  That meant we got up at 6 Am, cared for our dogs, attended obedience, attended breakfast, took our dogs for a mandatory play session (I know, how terrible to be required to play), and lecture in the evening.  For Padawan and I, that meant we wandered around aimlessly looking for an activity, since we both have a bit too much energy to stay still all day.  I was blessed to be able to spend four wonderful hours with a close friend of mine who came to visit, but before and after that, we occupied ourselves talking to our classmates, walking the halls, playing various and sundry instruments, cuddling (Padawan and I were cuddling I mean), and talking on the phone.  It was a very relaxing time, and the food was particularly delicious for a rainy cold September day.  We had grilled cheese with tomato soup for lunch, followed by spaghetti, meat sauce, and garlic bread in the evening.  Comfort food.

Obedience in the morning went quite well, even with a dog wandering around the room as a distraction.  At one point, Padawan was in a stay, nose to nose with the distraction dog and she didn’t move.  Very nicely done.  Distractions during obedience will continue to increase in difficulty as we go along.  I might not write about obedience every day from here on out, but I may mention it if something particularly impressive happens.

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 6|The Afternoon Mystery Revealed

Saturday morning brought the first obedience session with some level of distraction.  Our class supervisor tried to catch Padawan’s attention by bouncing a tennis ball all around us while we concentrated on our commands.  She did look once or twice, but got refocused quickly.  Everything this dog does is quick.  She is like a jack-in-the-box when she sits up during obedience.  She takes off like a rocket when she is working.  She spins around and throws herself to the ground in seconds when I tell her “close” (which is the command to lay between my feet under a chair).  She does everything enthusiastically and virtually nothing halfway (hahaha, other than when she doesn’t want to lay down, that is, and remains for a minute or more in the downward dog position in order to trick me into thinking she’s all the way down).

We had a route in White Plains in the morning.  It started out as a relaxed Saturday morning route, with little traffic and fewer pedestrians, but we soon ran into several challenges.  The first was the construction.  A fence blocked off an entire section of the sidewalk, so Padawan had to stop and show me the fence before we could go around to the curb.  She did so, but when we arrived at the curb there was a loud engine being used in the construction zone and I could not hear a thing in order to make the decision to cross the street.  My trainer helped me so that we wouldn’t have to stand there all morning.  Padawan didn’t seem bothered by the noise.  A block or two down, Padawan approached the curb and veered a little to the right.  I was not sure we had approached it correctly until my trainer informed me that there were two pigeons standing right where she would normally have stopped at the curb.  She had treated them as an obstacle so as not to get in trouble for going after pigeons.  She is too cute!!!

Evidently, she did not have the same reservations a block or two on from that when she glimpsed a pair of dogs ahead of us.  Her pace increased to warp speed.  Needless to say that when the next curb arrived, we both ended up with our feet in the street, rather than the sidewalk, by the time we managed to stop for the curb.  We walked back several paces and approached the curb again with a steady command, and she fixed her mistake.  Later though, Padawan was in a sit waiting for a fellow classmate to go on ahead of us (we tend to catch up with people) when a pigeon landed about a foot away.  She thought it was great fun to watch him, but didn’t move a muscle to chase or lunge at him.  Good girl!  I was also very pleased with her reaction to a complicated traffic situation at one crossing.  There was a bus at a bus stop, and a mail truck was pulled up behind it waiting to make a delivery.  That placed it right to the left of us as we approached the far curb on the crosswalk.  With that on our left and turning cars on our right, it got a bit narrow and Padawan ran for it.  I did not treat her for it since she missed the curb, but honestly I was just glad she got us out of there.  My trainer and I agreed that it was a fairly appropriate response given everything going on.  I love working this dog.

In the afternoon, our mystery work was practice with the clicker/targeting as well as a supervised grooming session.  A clicker is a small plastic box with a button that makes a loud popping sound when pressed.  The dogs have learned to associate the sound with food.  It is used as a marker during training to indicate to the dog that, at the moment of the click, they were demonstrating a desired behavior and will receive a food reward.  Targeting is teaching a dog to recognize and target a certain thing according to it’s name.  For example, Padawan has already learned generic targets like curbs, doors, and steps.  If they are in the general vicinity, she can recognize a door and take me to it when I say, “too the door”.  If taught, she can also target particular doors and other objects.  Yesterday we worked on my dorm room door specifically.  I placed my fist on the door and told Padawan “touch”, which prompts her to bop my fist with her nose.  This helps her to understand that I want her to target the thing under my fist.  When she response to the touch command, I click and feed.  After a few repetitions, I added in the word “door”, and then took away the touch command all together and only said, “door”, still clicking and feeding when she bopped my fist.  After a few times doing that, I backed up from the door, picked up the harness handle, and told her, “too the door”.  We continued like that several times over,backing up further and further first in one direction and then in another, until it was pretty clear she knew exactly what I wanted from her.  I have to remember to slow her down a bit with the “steady” command, because we get going so quickly it becomes difficult for her to turn and target with so much momentum.  She LOVES targeting and I can’t wait to see her show me her awesome skills with other things as well.

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 5|My Tiny Mack Truck

Friday, Padawan and I were first to go out at White Plains. She was happy to get her energy out first thing rather than wait an hour or more before hand.

For the preliminary few days, a trainer usually works beside the team on the left with their own leash attached to the collar of the dog. This gives the dog a confidence boost and keeps the trainer close so that they can easily communicate with the handler.  Our support leash came off halfway through our morning route

There was an immediate difference in the way it felt to work together.  It was a little bit freer and required more trust that Padawan would guide me safely. She did some excellent podestrian avoiding in a couple of street crossings, including an entire family with grandparents, children, and squeaky cart. There was also a small dog disraction. A dog passed behind us. Padawan looked, but quickly turned her attention back to me, and I got to reward her for her calm demeanor and attentiveness.  Immediately after that was the right turn… we have had a bit of trouble with this right turn every time.  There are multiple other obstacles in the way, so that we cannot turn directly to the right.  Padawan first has to curl a bit around me to get us around something to our left, and then avoid something on the right in order to continue on our way.  It took a little bit of finagling for both of us, but we figured it out.

A lot of what I am working on during our routes is learning to understand her movements in the harness.  Oleta was a gentle glider.  She was very calm and moved in a way that reflected that.  Padawan is more aggressive.  She’s a city traffic driver, not a country Sunday driver.  Her pul is very firm, and her movements are decisive. At our best pace, following her feels easy and clearly defined.  At our fastest, I feel like I am trying to keep up with a tiny mack truck (as my trainer referred to her once) plowing around curves down a mountainside.  The Mountainside Mack Truck pace is fine when we are out for a joy run on a track or something with no obstacles to avoid and no curbs to find, but on a busy city sidewalk it’s less desirable as it makes accurate obstacle avoidance a bit more challenging, if not impossible.  That means we are utilizing the “steady” command to slow her down at some points and refocus her attention when she gets a tad too excited, especially in areas with a lot of pedestrians.  I may have used “steady” a grand total of one time with Oleta, so it’s kind of new to me, but I think we are both getting the hang of it.

In the afternoon route, we encountered a 2 year-old, and thankfully didn’t knock him over, although I think it was close.  Children are difficult obstacles in some cases because they are unpredictable, so we did a bit of a dance with the child and the mother before we could go on our way.  We also had a small distraction with some men loading things into a van.  Padawan was briefly curious about who they were and what they were doing, but got right back on task with a leash cue.

Other than that, our routes were fairly uneventful, and we returned to GEB for our lecture and some time to rest.  Saturday, we have the same route again in White Plains in the morning, followed by individualized mystery work in the afternoon.  Can’t wait to discover what the mystery might be.