When people in the US first started taking their dogs to dog training classes, the vast majority of the knowledge of dog training came from training dogs for the military. This meant that they used aggressive methods designed to train the dogs as quickly as possible with a high rate of failure. These methods were developed using a limited set of breeds. Those dogs were viewed as tools, not as pets or companions.
Most of us are here because we want to have a companion in our house that is a joy to live with. As healthy social creatures we don’t feel happiness when we use force or violence. We all prefer to have choices, just like our dogs, and how much better do we feel when we see someone we love making a decision out of love? When compulsion is used we take away the opportunity for the dog to make decisions because any action other than the expected behavior results in pain. Some dogs can be trained very effectively with these methods. The problems lie with the dogs that are too small to safely use these methods, dogs with sensitive personalities and people who want to have an enjoyable experience training their dog. For those who wish to go beyond there are some tricks you just can’t train using fear of pain.
If we look outside the dog world we see examples of positive reinforcement working everywhere: in schools, the workplace, sports teams, and zoos. Great bosses pay employees, recognize when employees go above and beyond, and try to keep a high moral in the workplace. As a dog owner you have much more power than a boss because dogs receive everything from us. How do we live with them in such a way that not only forms a bond of trust but motivates them to do what we ask?
Positive reinforcement does just that and we don’t always have to have treats on us. Just like kids have chores, we expect certain behaviors from our dogs. We can choose to reinforce those behaviors by giving them life rewards such as attention, letting them outside or inside, playing tug, going for a walk or anything big or small that the dog enjoys.
The first step is always to find what your dog likes. What makes her go crazy? Does she actually like this toy or treat and which one does she like best? When I pat her on the head while training does she move away or snuggle up for more? Can my dog even think when I have the tennis ball in my hand? Just being observant and trying new things may open doors you didn’t know existed.
Once you know what rewards are fitting for certain behaviors (harder work = a reward the dog values more) the next step is to always be consistent with acknowledging your dog’s effort. The only trick to clicker training is teaching the animal that the click means ‘good job!’ You don’t need a clicker to use this type of training, just a specific, arbitrary sound that always sounds the same. In order to show the animal that that sound means ‘good job’ you need to give her something rewarding immediately after hearing the sound (within three seconds or less) every time you make the sound. Consistency is the key to showing your dog that she can trust you because she knows what to expect from you, thus you become predictable.
Like every training device, the clicker is simply a tool designed to help the animal learn what we want them to do. Once the behavior is learned, then we can add a cue to it such as a word or hand signal. The cue is added later so that the dog doesn’t become desensitized to it during training while she still doesn’t understand what it means.
When your dog knows how to perform a behavior on cue you can fade out the reward and expect him to do the behavior when you ask. For example: your dog now knows how to sit so asking him to sit before you let him through the door, before giving him his food and in other life situations will not only be good practice and give him something to work for, it will also build a relationship that encourages partnership and integrity.