January is the month for New Year’s resolutions. This year, I resolve to devote more time with my dog Chase doing things he enjoys. German Shorthaired Pointers are highly social animals, thriving on interactions with their favorite humans. The dog’s ancestors lived in groups (packs) and hunted, played, and slept together. Today the typical dog eats food out of a bowl, is let out in the backyard every morning just long enough to eliminate, then spends up to 8 hours alone with nothing to do while her owner works. It’s not uncommon for young adolescent dogs to get into trouble when unsupervised or get hyperactive every evening just as owners are trying to relax and wind down from a long day at work.
I have found that living with a high energy dog like the GSP can be quite challenging, especially when they are young (under 3 years of age). It seems impossible to tire them out if you don’t allow them to run around several hours a day as they were bred to do. Many of my clients admit that their dogs are seldom walked and do not get enough exercise. This lack of exercise can contribute to behavior problems caused by boredom and pent up energy. While meeting a dog’s need for physical activity is important, so is providing mental stimulation. An interactive thinking game can tire out a dog as well as a good romp in a field (although it is not a substitute for physical exercise). When a dog’s physical and mental exercise needs are met, many behavior problems decline in frequency.
Clicker training is one way to provide mental stimulation. A clicker is a small plastic box that makes a distinct clicking noise when a metal tab or a button is pressed. The click “marks” the precise moment that the dog is doing something you like, and tells her that a reward is coming soon (within 2 seconds of the click). Thus the technique is also known as Marker Training. Any short distinct sound can be used as a marker such as the click of a ballpoint pen, a clucking sound made with your tongue, or even saying a quick one syllable word such as “yes!” in a high pitch tone that you normally would not use in daily conversation. These other options would be ideal for dogs that are sound sensitive and afraid of a clicker.
Marker training of animals is a powerful reward-based training technique that is based on behavioral science and was first used in dog training in the early 1990’s. Marine mammal trainers have been using this method long before then, with the whistle serving as the marker and tasty fish as the reward. Horses and zoo animals are trained with clickers by handlers who wish to use positive, force-free techniques. Cats can be clicker trained, too. You can see me giving it a try here: Clicker Training. I’ve also seen a video of a fish being trained with a flashlight as the marker! Clicker training is even used with people. It is called TAGTeach, and has been found very effective in fields such as business, sports, and teaching children with disabilities. (You can read more about it at TAGTeach) .
Animals seem to learn faster with clicker training than with just verbal instruction and praise. It has been suggested that the click sound is processed in an area of the brain that is different than where verbal language is processed. Most dogs seem to enjoy working for the click (or whatever marker you choose) once they learn what it means and experience receiving meaningful rewards with the technique.
So here’s how to get started: You will need a hungry dog, a clicker (or marker of choice), and some soft tasty treats cut up into tiny M&M sized pieces. You could also use a portion of your dog’s meal of kibble if your dog loves it and you are worried about weight gain from too many treats. A pouch that you wear around your waist or clipped to a belt or pocket is handy to have. The more your dog loves the treats you are using, the faster she will learn.
First, teach your dog that a click (or whatever sound you are using) means a treat is coming. At this stage, you are not requiring the dog to do anything. Hold a treat in one hand behind your back. With the clicker in your other hand, click ONCE. Then immediately give her the treat (within 2 seconds of the click). The click must happen BEFORE the treat is presented. Repeat this several times. Now, test her understanding by clicking just once while she is looking away from you. If she quickly turns to you for the treat when she hears the click, she understands the connection. From now on, DO NOT CLICK TO GET YOUR DOG’S ATTENTION. You must only click to mark the precise moment a behavior of your choice is happening. Do not click multiple times in rapid succession. Every single click must be followed by a treat in order to preserve its power as a marker and training tool.
A clicker is useful when teaching new behaviors. For example, when teaching a dog to sit, you can use a treat to lure your dog into a sitting position. Hold a treat directly above her nose, then move the treat slightly back along the top of her head toward her ears. As she looks up and shifts her weight back to follow the treat, her bottom will likely lower to the floor. Click as soon as she sits, then give the treat. You are marking the moment she sits with a click, as if the clicker is a camera. Do this a few times until she understands the game. Now discontinue using food as a lure and just use an empty hand, pretending to hold a treat. Reach for the treat after you click for the sit.
Up to this point, you should not be using a verbal command yet. Once she is doing the action consistently with your hand prompting, introduce the word “sit” by saying it right before doing the hand motion. Soon the word will come to predict the action. When you see this happening, discontinue your hand signal and just use the word. Here is a video of me clicker training my GSP to pull me out of a chair (no verbal command is used): Clicker Training
Alternatively, you can ask your dog to do something she already knows how to do. Click and treat when she complies. Or, you can simply wait quietly until she does something you want her to do more often (this is called capturing). For example, wait until your dog lies down. When she does, click to mark the behavior, then give a treat. After about a dozen repetitions of either method, your dog will lie down faster and more often as she learns to work for the click.
Once the behavior you are teaching becomes highly reliable (90% correct or better), you can fade out the clicker. Start rewarding intermittently and unpredictably to keep the behavior strong (think of a slot machine). If you stop the rewards too abruptly, the dog may stop trying because the fun has been taken out of it. After all, you wouldn’t want your employer to stop giving you paychecks just because he feels you should work to please him, right?
Next month I will talk about simple games you can play with your dog using a clicker.