Heeling - focus
Agility - the 'touch'
Clicker training is a technology which has recently become very popular in dog training. The clicker itself is a little box which makes a click sound when pressed. It becomes a marker for the behavior that the trainer is looking for and also that goodies may be on their way. Training this way is continuing to evolve with more research and understanding of animal behavior. It is useful to attend a couple of classes or seminars to get the basics down and to learn the more complicated scientific behavioral concepts if you are interested in the full philosophy. I have been to two Melissa Alexander seminars, these two day events were very enjoyable, Melissa is down to earth and very good at explaining complicated behavioral concepts.
Here are some useful links to explain the quadrants of learning and current behavioral terms and their definitions. Kellie Snider has done a wonderful job of explaining and providing examples of all the important aspects.
I started to train with the clicker when Bodeus was about 4 months old. Before this we had concentrated on luring him into the correct position with food and then gradually pairing that with the desired command word. This works great for teaching a puppy basic sits and downs, but free-shaping with the clicker goes one step further, the dog learns to be aware of his own body. When you lure a dog into position, he is thinking about the food rather than what he is doing. When you use free-shaping, you either wait for him to take up the position naturally and let him work out what you are rewarding, or you break down a more complicated sequence into small pieces and gradually ask for more each time.
For example; when training the retrieve, the very first step is the dog acknowledges the existence of the dumbell. You can click and treat him just for looking at the dumbell. Then you ask a little more by waiting until he steps towards the dumbell for reward. Then you move on to clicking when he touches or licks the dumbell, then places his teeth on it, then taking it into his mouth. There are many ways to teach the same thing.
We used Shirley Chong's retrieve for a start point. Bodeus' challenge with the retrieve was actually holding the dumbell in his mouth, so I focussed on that part, rewarding him when he put his mouth around it until one day he got distracted by a noise and held the dumbell, his face was a picture when I gave him a jackpot of several pieces of food and got very excited! He looked a little confused but within a few more sessions, he was holding the dumbell for up to a minute. It took about 6 weeks to teach the retrieve working twice a day. I didn't do any drive work with the dumbell, just the clicker, but once he had the basics down, I added playing and building drive for the dumbell. I can pick him up with the dumbell and pat the sides of it and he doesn't let go. He has a nice clean out and doesn't mouth. In his IPO3, I threw the dumbell very badly over the wall and it shot out sideways 10 feet, Bodeus could see it to the left of the wall. But he understood the exercise and went over the wall first, picked the dumbell up and came back over the wall. I could see the judge smiling!
Clicker training is great fun, for both dog and trainer, and as the dog learns to offer more and more behaviors, he learns faster and faster. Bodeus learned the articles for tracking using the clicker, starting in the living room, and then gradually training in different locations, then pairing the action with a word, and finally using it on the track. Bodeus knows when we are going to train with the clicker, I usually leave him off leash or on a long line, and he gets to be free and offer all kinds of behaviors, we have also free-shaped tricks and seemingly useless actions such as putting his foot on a box or pushing a container with his nose. But this allows both dog and trainer to relax and do something different from the more serious competition exercises. We have completed the Utility Dog obedience title in 2005. All of the exercises were taught with the clicker.
One of the most important concepts to teach a competition dog is focus. The clicker is an easy way to teach this, because you can catch the behavior you want precisely when it happens. It takes some practise to get the timing just right but the results are well worth it. You also need to be very clear about what you are trying to train and break it down appropriately for your dog. Something I learned from the Monty Roberts Intelligent Horsemanship technique, if you approach something like it will take ten minutes, it will take an hour, but if you allow for an hour, it will take ten minutes. Never be in a hurry to train something new. If you are getting a lot of failures, you may be pushing too fast, take a step back and think about what you are asking for. You must have a high rate of reinforcement so that the training can progress.
When starting training with the clicker, I used quite a few lures and the leash to help achieve the results I wanted, but as I train more exercises, and with each subsequent puppy, I am using free-shaping more and more. It gives me a chance to watch the dog's reactions, and natural inclinations, so I can tailor my training to each individual dog. For instance, I was teaching articles to two pups recently, one went from sniffing the article to biting it, the other went from sniffing to pawing the article. The first pup investigates things much more with his mouth, which should make the retrieve easy! The second likes to play with items with her paws. Once the pup pawed the article, I rewarded that, and soon she tried a play bow, and then a down. After 4 short sessions of 10 repetitions, she had the basic idea of lying near the article. Then I just had to teach her that the article must be between her paws.
Working with your puppy:
Once you have the puppy making good eye contact, you can move on to other positions such as sit, down, heel and stand. Another useful exercise to teach a puppy is targeting, for this you can use a 3 foot piece of ½inch dowel, and attach a small tennis ball to the end by piercing it with a knife, and placing it on the end of the dowel. You might want to glue it on. You can teach the pup to touch it with his nose. This can be useful for all kinds of future obedience work, heeling in position, go outs, Ariel learning targeting broad jump...
Even if you are not going to train for schutzhund, teaching your puppy
to indicate items which have your smell on them can be useful as a precursor
to a retrieve, scent discrimination or search work. You can teach him
to down or sit or touch the item with a paw or nose. Then you can put
the item in a different part of the house or yard and ask him to find
it. Make it easy at first, where he can see it, then put it around corners,
then hidden. You could also put it in a pile of similar looking items
and ask him to indicate the one which you touched.
More games you can play with your puppy include problem solving, you can put a treat in a small cardboard box, you can put a baby gate half way across a doorway and put a treat where the pup can see it but where he must negotiate around the gate to get it. You can start him walking on wooden boards as a precursor to agility dog walks, a-frames and see saws. TTouch ground work is excellent for puppies, once they have some basic coordination.
Clicker solutions has a good page of basic training plans for you and your puppy - click here
Useful books on clicker training: