In this series, I’m going to show you a few basic training techniques. Once you understand how to use these techniques, you’ll be able to train your dog to do pretty much any trick or obedience command you want.
You’ll also learn how to avoid common problems like the classic, “my dog only listens when I have a treat in my hand!”
These methods work for all breeds, and all ages of dog. You could even use them on your cat, bird, killer whale, horse, or housemates.
The training methods we’re going to talk about over the next couple videos are lure/reward and shaping.
Lure/reward, or just “luring:” Take a treat, stick it in front of the dog’s nose, and lure them into the position you want. It’s really simple and easy, and it’s the method I recommend for most dog training beginners.
Shaping: Wait for the dog to make a tiny, tiny step in the right direction, and reward each tiny step until eventually the dog is performing the desired trick. You can think of shaping as a guessing game, where the dog is guessing what you want him to do.
Shaping is a little tougher to get used to than luring, but it has two benefits:
- It’s how you get really impressive tricks
- Once they understand how it works, dogs love shaping. Unlike with a lot of other methods, they’re not being pushed or prompted to do something, they’re using their brains to come up with their own ideas. This results in an engaged, enthusiastic dog. Shaping is great for “stubborn” dogs who are hard to train with other methods.
How to Get Started
You’re going to need a way to tell the dog the exact moment when he does the thing you want. Especially if you’re using shaping, you need to be able to tell the dog precisely which one of his guesses was correct. To do that, you need a marker, which is a quick, distinct sound that tells the dog “yes, I like what you did, your reward is coming.”
You can use a marker word, like “yes” or “good,” or you can use a clicker.
Why bother with a marker at all? Why not just hand the dog the treat?
Clarity of communication, my friend. Dogs can do a lot of “behaviors” in the space of like two seconds. By the time you’ve grabbed a treat to reinforce your dog for, say, touching a target with his nose, he could have also looked away, sat down, stepped closer to you, or lifted a paw. How does he know exactly which of his behaviors earned the reward? With a marker to bridge the gap between the behavior and the reward, the dog learns quicker, doesn’t get frustrated, and you succeed faster.
Now, sure, for beginner lure/reward, you don’t technically need a marker. Your dog can learn to sit, lie down, and spin in a circle just fine without one. So it’s up to you. I’d still use one, if you eventually want to work on cooler tricks or more advanced obedience, but hey, it’s your life. Do what you want.
How long do I have to use the clicker? FOREVER??
Nope. Common misconception, actually. A marker is just for the teaching phase, when your dog is learning how the behavior works. Once he know it, you don’t need the marker anymore. So no, you don’t have to walk around with a clicker in your pocket the rest of your life.
(I mean, I pretty much do. But that’s just me)
So what is it about the sound of a clicker, or a marker word, that dogs like so much? Well, nothing. I mean, we use clickers because they make a distinct, unique sound, but there is nothing inherently rewarding about it. So you need to take about five minutes to do what we in the business call:
Charging the Marker
This means teaching your dog that the sound means a reward is coming.
First, pick your marker. Either an actual clicker, or a word. I use the marker word “yes,” but you can pick whatever you want.
Get your dog in a quiet environment with no distractions. Get a container with about 30 pea-size soft treats.
Click the clicker, or say your marker word, and immediately put a treat in the dog’s face. You’re not waiting for the dog to do any specific behavior, you’re just building the association between the sound and the food.
Use up all 30 treats, and you have the basics of a charged marker. Now you’re ready to begin training.
The Basics of a Training Session
Use good rewards. Any time you teach your dog a new behavior, you’ll use food rewards, because food is fast and easy to dish out, most dogs work enthusiastically for it, so you can get a lot of repetitions per session and make fast progress. Later, once your dog knows the new trick, you can use non-food reinforcers.
What food do you use? Whatever will keep the dog’s interest. Some dogs, especially puppies, will happily work for pieces of kibble, but most dogs will want something more interesting. Your best bet is something soft and chewy. Whatever you use, break it into very small pieces. Your dog needs to be able to eat it in one bite and move on to the next repetition.
Start in an environment with as few distractions as possible. Somewhere your dog won’t have a hard time focusing. Over time, as your dog’s understanding of the behavior builds, you can add more distractions. First your house, then your backyard, then your street, then the park, then the dog park. It has to be a gradual shift in difficulty. So don’t try to take it straight from the living room to the dog park.
Keep training sessions short. If you’re working with a puppy, or a dog who has never been trained before and seems to get frustrated easily, your training sessions should be two minutes long, tops. For other dogs, about five to ten minutes are good. Try to end each session before you or the dog gets bored. You can do as many training sessions per day as you want, 3, 5, 10, whatever, just give the dog a decent break in between.
The number one rule of the marker: the marker is always followed by a reward. One mark or click equals one reward. In order for to maintain its effectiveness, the click has to be followed by a reward every single time. So even if you make a mistake and click at the wrong time, you have to give the dog a treat.
Watch the next episode: A step-by-step guide to lure/reward.