Category Archives: General Training

Leash reactivity, leash aggression, barrier frustration, dog reactive, dog selective…these are all terms used to describe basically the same problem. And it is a problem that is so widespread that I rarely leave my house without witnessing this behavior. In fact, my very own dog exhibits this behavior in certain situations. 90% of my clients have dogs that engage in reactive behavior.

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Above:  Dogs Reacting

I know that these behaviors aren’t new, but they are becoming more and more common and it is time to work towards preventing reactivity rather than  only doing damage control to fix reactivity.

Almost every dog owner I work with has a desire of either bringing the dog when they eat at an outdoor café, brining the dog to the beach or park, or taking the dog on a camping trip. We want our dogs to be integrated into our families and be part of the family activities. But, if that is the goal, we’ve got to put in the effort! It isn’t natural for dogs to be confined by a leash in a crowded place. That is a scary situation for them without the right training.

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Above:  Common expectations of the modern day dog

Modern dogs are either under or over stimulated most of the time. Mental, physical, and social stimulation is not evenly distributed over their day. They are alone in a quiet house and then walking on a busy street or unleashed at a crowded dog park.

60 or 70 years ago, dogs had the freedom to wander the neighborhood, visit with the children across the street, follow their owner on errands and so on. They were able to fulfill their mental, social, and physical needs independently. They could seek out the social interactions they needed in order to feel satisfied and they could avoid the situations they did not enjoy. Now, we control access to almost every experience our dogs have.

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Above: Historical dog, free to make choices

I think a big contributor to the problem of reactivity is the push to socialize your dog. Most dog owners now understand that in order to integrate their dog into their daily activities outside of the house, they need to do something. They need to socialize their dog. But, I think that sometimes more harm than good is done when attempting to socialize dogs.

I am not saying that socialization is a bad thing, but rather that it is usually done wrong! For most people “socialization” = “go to the dog park daily” or “meet lots of people and dogs”. This is not socialization. This misunderstanding of socialization results in repeated exposure to stressful situations that the dog is unable to avoid. What does a dog do when they can’t avoid a stressor? (Hint: What does any creature do?) They aggress. They fight when flight is not an option.

dog-greeting-300x200     Two dogs meeting on a walk


Above:  Pushy and scared dogs meeting on leash,
two unhappy dogs meeting

Sometimes this aggression is a lunge, bark, or snarl of frustration. But sometimes it results in a snap, nip, or bite. Even the (only…) lunging, barking dog is causing damage though. He’s screaming at the other dog! He is teaching other dogs he encounters that some dogs behave this way seemingly out of the blue, despite the passing dog’s efforts to communicate “I mean no harm!”. Now the passing dog has learned that his communication was not effective. With repetition he will find another way to say “stay away, you are scaring me!”. It might look like aggression. And this is how reactivity and aggression spread throughout our communities.

To socialize correctly, we need to be more thoughtful about what our dogs encounter and how to handle that situation. The need for this comes from the intensity that has developed in our living situations. Because it is so easy for your dog to be overwhelmed, you have to break down every experience into smaller pieces. We need to make every new experience 100% enjoyable for the dog. We need to give our dogs the freedom to say “no, I don’t want to go to the dog park today” or “no, I don’t want to go to the dog park ever”. And we need to provide structure for social encounters so that we can develop dogs who are safe, confident, and happy.

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Above:  Good social interactions between dogs, positive experiences and happy dogs

How can we stop the reactivity epidemic?

  1. Smart, structured socialization.
  2. Teach impulse control.
  3. Teach leash manners.
  4. Prevent pushy greetings.
  5. Let your dog’s body language tell you when he’s nervous.
  6. Don’t assume every dog wants to meet your dog. Ask the dog’s owner then, ask the dog by observing his response to your dog.
  7. LEASH YOUR DOG, to prevent unwanted greetings.
  8. Interrupt inappropriate interactions by calling your dog or leading away gently, and rewarding the behavior of moving away.
  9. Don’t punish aggression or reactivity. It will make it worse.
  10. Get help right away from a qualified, positive dog trainer or behavior consultant if you notice any sign of reactivity or aggression in your dog. Don’t assume it will go away on it’s own. It won’t.

How long does it take?

I went to have blood drawn the other day, just routine blood work. The phlebotomist asked me what my job was. This is our how the conversation went:

Me: “I’m an animal trainer” – that has become my standard answer
Her: “Wow, cool – what animals? Do you go into their homes?”
Me: “Yes”, I said, “Mostly dogs”.
Her: “Oh wow, neat…I don’t have a dog…how long does it take to train one?”

“How long does it take????”

The burning question everyone wants to know.

Think about it – we plan our days, often down to the minute. That is the first question everyone asks (maybe after cost) to a mechanic, at a restaurant, when travelling somewhere, when going to school, when having carpet installed. For everything you do, time matters.

Our society puts such an emphasis on how much time something consumes. And rightfully so. Along with money, time is one of our most valuable resources because you can’t get it back once you spend it.

But how about these questions:

“How long does it take to learn how to play classical piano?”
“How long does it take to get in shape?”
“How long does it take for a child to learn the alphabet?”
“How long does it take to become a good golfer?”

The answer to all of these questions is – it depends. It depends on a few things:

  1. Your natural ability to do the skill – some people are born to play music!
  2. Your starting place – have you ever even seen golf?
  3. How often you practice – think back to your childhood piano lessons
  4. Who you practice with, who you train with – you can go to the gym everyday and have very little luck getting in shape.
  5. And then it depends on so many more tiny variables that you won’t expect will crop up! – Maybe you were born to play music but your piano is junky and you have only heard country music your whole life. You would likely be at a disadvantage to someone who owns a baby grand and has grown up listening to Mozart.

Much like these scenarios, there is no formula for how long dog training takes. It depends on so many things that most of the time I can’t really give you a good guess. I just met you and your dog. I have no idea how dedicated you will be or how much natural ability you and your dog have.

My dog, Dan just turned 4. We have been working on reducing his reactivity towards other dogs for 3 years. 3 years. He is not yet perfect – far from it! But, he has made HUGE progress. He can practice agility in a barn with dogs he does not know. He can go for a walk in the neighborhood without having a meltdown. We play Frisbee in the park with no issues. We can take a drive and he can look at dogs quietly as we pass by. He basically can live the life of a normal pet dog with only a few minor revisions.

Okay so let’s look at the variables I listed above:

  1. Natural skill: Dan is smart but doesn’t have the natural tendency to relax – which is needed to be good at the behavior we are working towards.
  2. Starting place: In a downtown apartment in a crowded city full of unpredictable dogs! Ahhhhh!!! (Now we are in a house in a relatively quiet neighborhood – oh the difference!)
  3. How often you practice: I go in spurts, I’ll admit. We have at times practiced daily and then go for several months without working very hard on this issue. But I do work with Dan regularly on something, just sometimes other goals. This is important because even though we aren’t working on interaction with other dogs, I am building more consistent behavior in Dan through all training we do.
  4. Who you practice with: I have great friends to practice with at the agility barn and access to a wealth of information on this topic. I would say we are in a pretty good position on this one, but I have worked hard to create these scenarios for us.
  5. Other variables: There have been tons. Too many to list. But some examples include; the highly reactive dog on our street (a setback), moving into a house with a yard (an advantage), unexpected encounters on walks (setback), access to good parks for exercise (advantage)…and so on.

These are all of the things that have contributed to the length of time our progress has taken.

But, if I were to go back and do it over, I would want it to happen the exact same way. Because with every setback, I have learned something about Dan (and dog training in general).

By taking our time we have been able to build a wonderful relationship rather than being frustrated with each other. When we haven’t worked directly on interactions with other dogs it is because we’ve been doing other stuff that is less stressful and more fun for both Dan and me. When I have the emotional strength to practice Dan-dog interactions and he is in a good place to do so, we do it. I let him tell me how fast he wants to go.

Besides, even after we master Dan-dog interactions, we will find another training project to do! That is where we get our fuel for our relationship. To Dan, it is all a game and he hopes I will never stop playing.

So, my new answer to “How long does it take to train your dog?” is “His whole life”.

Dan is 4!

Dan’s 4th Birthday was this month. It is so close to the holidays that I seem to always miss it, but we have been celebrating life together every day so I don’t think he minds.  Here he is doing agility on his birthday week:


I do want to continue my annual “Dan’s Goals” tradition. I have been thinking of writing this post for a week or so, making a list in my head of what we have accomplished and what we need to work on. However, I just looked back at last year’s post for the first time today. I have been having this feeling like we hadn’t accomplished many of our goals, but really when looking over the list we have met about half and made progress towards all of them!  This is why it is so good to write this stuff down – progress is easier to see and feel if it is recorded!

Here are my goals from last year and where we stand with each one:

  • Skateboards: We haven’t tackled this one completely, but I was able to call him away from chasing a skateboard at the park and I can get him to stop barking much faster now. I keep saying this is my priority, but obviously it isn’t as we really haven’t spent much time on this one!
  • Barking like mad at UPS/FedEx/Mailman: Dan will now stop this behavior when we ask. Over the last year we have had some random (creepy) people appear on our porch so I have decided that this one is okay with me. I have noticed that if we have a “substitute” mailman, Dan barks much more intensely. He is very good at recognizing friend vs. stranger. He has a different bark for someone he knows, a stranger, and the UPS/FedEx/Mailman.
  • Herding the cat very intently: This had gotten tons better until about a week ago. I believe it is lack of exercise in these dark winter months.
  • Fine-tune our neighborhood walks: I wouldn’t say these are perfect but Dan hardly pulls at all now, we are more connected with each other when walking, and we can actually walk for exercise, not just training purposes now!
  • Obedience commands in novel environments (parks, parking lots, new buildings, new neighborhoods, etc.): We’ve rocked this one. We’ve been to parking lots, Home Depot, PetSmart, the agility barn, random parks, outdoor eating areas (quiet ones). Dan can heel, sit, down, and stay with almost any distraction now.  Yahoo!
  • Practicing his calm behavior near other dogs in novel environments, separate from playing fetch: We’ve worked hard on this one too! Our biggest accomplishment is a very recent one –we’ve been practicing agility at the barn with new dogs that he’s never met and he has been so good!. I am one proud puppy mama.
  • Continue agility foundation skills: Check!  We took two online foundation classes and one canine fitness class, all to prepare for a solid agility foundation.
  • Do agility in some new places – introduce the rest of the equipment (weaves, a-frame, a full tunnel, dog walk, other jumps): Also check…mostly. Still don’t have the weaves down and we still need to perfect our contacts.  But we’ve done agility in two new places and are working up to a third location (and maybe 4th/5th at some local parks).
  • Take a private agility lesson: Not yet.  But, we did do a couple of herding lessons!
  • MAYBE do a group class – we will see how everything else goes: Not yet.  Maybe this year? We are so close to being able to do this!

So, for this year our goal process is going to change a bit. I want to work on things in several categories: Dog encounters, Agility, and New Sports. This year’s goals are as much for Dan as they are for me!

Dog encounters:

  • Agility with at least 10 new, different dogs – not necessarily all at once. Our club has started hosting monthly fun runs so I think we can practice (work up to this) in that setting. This will need to start with just being onsite while a trial/fun run is going on and we can work up to actually running agility.
  • Walking near other (unknown) dogs at 10-15 feet. Currently across the street is about the distance Dan can handle.


  • Dan’s biggest weakness in agility right now is his right-hand turns, especially tight turns. I believe this is a problem with his footwork so we need to go back to basics!
  • Weave poles
  • Improved, fine-tuned contacts
  • Add some advanced/international cues to our handling toolbox.
  • Fitness!! Dan and I both need to be in better shape in order to excel in agility. Some ideas I have been tossing around are biking with Dan, practicing sprints, and even possibly taking an online class for human fitness for agility.
  • A private lesson, or two, or 10….

New Sports:

  • Nose Work: I’ve gotten interested in this and thing Dan would enjoy it. I’d like to do more training at home and take a lesson or two with Dan to investigate more.
  • Herding: Possibly continue lessons later in the year.
  • FitPaws: While not a sport, I would like to treat this like it’s own area to work on. I think it is very important and we just need to make it a priority!

The big one: Compete in an agility trial. I can finally see that this might be a possibility this year. We will see where the year takes us .

As Dan’s trainer, my main goals for myself are to improve my physical abilities for agility training and to keep better logs/data on our training and our progress. I have some ideas for both of these and will try to share with you here as I go.

Happy Training!


We teach sit because…

Last week, I asked the question “why do we teach sit?” The question was really meant to re-evaluate why we teach a dog any behavior. So many things we teach seem to be just the standard – a set of things every dog should know. But why?

Here’s what I think. I believe the reason we teach our dogs to sit isn’t always the reason we should have for teaching them to sit. If you take a basic obedience class, chances are you will learn to teach your dog how to sit, down, come, stay, walk on a leash (maybe), and leave it. But then what? I betcha that most people go home and don’t use most of these behaviors ever again, because they aren’t really taught how to use them.

So, why should you teach your dog to sit? Because it is a great tool! You can ask for a sit before your dog has a chance to jump up – do that every time and soon she will learn the pattern “approach person, sit, get petting”.

Some other uses for the sit behavior:

  • To get your dog to stop moving forward on leash (and therefore stop pulling)
  • To keep “4 on the floor” when there is food on the counter, a person walking in the door, or someone carrying a casserole to the table.
  • To prevent door dashing
  • To keep your dog from rushing up to another animal/child/person
  • To have your dog in a stationary spot before asking her to release a toy (can’t tug on a toy or run away with it if she’s sitting!)

I hope that by now you are thinking “hmm, every one of those items is to prevent unwanted behavior”. Yes! Exactly. The behaviors we teach our dog are all tools to ask them what we do want them to do in a specific situation. By teaching sit, down, come, stay, walk on leash, leave it, etc – and teaching them well – you have tools to direct your dog to good behavior when they might otherwise do something undesirable (to us). These are all communication tools to help our dogs understand how to live in our homes and communities without causing trouble.

I think that we need to shift our thinking about training our dogs. The purpose of taking a training class should be to learn how to live with your dog, how to ask your dog for good behavior (and therefore reduce the bad behavior) and to build a relationship with your dog.

So, the next time you teach your dog something new – think about all of the ways you could use your new tool to ask for something good from your dog!

Why do we teach our dogs to sit?

Over the past few months, I have spent a lot of time updating my group class curriculum. I have two big projects in the works that are going to require a more robust curriculum than I currently use.

The first is about to launch! I have a brand new set of classes that I will be teaching at Doggone Fun Daycare this spring. There are two main sets of classes, one for basic training and the other for agility training. These classes provide a way for students to continue on past the first class they take in a more cohesive way.

The other project is not quite ready to be announced – but check back soon for the grand reveal. It’s a big one!

One of my goals in restructuring my curriculum is to provide more useful classes for my students. To me, this means a class where the content is applicable to daily life with your dog. In the more traditional content I have been teaching, we go through all of the standard dog behaviors – sit, down, come, stay, walk on leash, leave it, etc.

But why? Why have these behaviors become the standard? Why do we teach our dogs to sit?

Leave your ideas and comments below and I will follow up with my answers to these questions next week.P1160532

Toys as Reinforcers

Sometimes, a toy can be more practical or more rewarding than a food item. However, it takes practice to use a toy as an effective reinforcer. Remember – the dog decides if it is reinforcing, not you! If he isn’t interested or the target behavior isn’t increasing, then it isn’t a reinforcer.

Before you can use a toy as a reinforcer you need to understand what about the toy is exciting to your dog. There are several ways for your dog to interact with a toy:

  1. Holding the toy
  2. Chomping/Chewing on the toy
  3. Tugging with the toy
  4. Chasing the toy while you wiggle it
  5. Chasing a tossed toy
  6. Catching a toy in the air

Here’s a video example of Dan doing each of these:

Try each of these little games with your dog and see what he enjoys. Try to rank them in order and mark games your dog didn’t have much interest in with an “x”. Now, play each of them again in a brand new place and rank them – did the order change? Are there more or less “x”s?

Sometimes the type of toy alters the type of game your dog might like – for example, he might like to chomp on a ball better than catching it in the air. But he might like to catch a Frisbee in the air better than chomping on it.

List 5 of your dogs favorite types of toy and try to write down the top game for that toy.

How you deliver the toy can affect the behavior you get, just like the placement of a treat can affect the behavior. For example, if you are working on “4 Feet on the Floor”, be sure to present the toy from below your dog’s nose. If you hand it to him from above, he will be likely to jump up to get it!

Just like with treat training, you should use a reward marker for the behavior you like with toys too. You can use a clicker, the word “Yes!”, or the word “Good!” with both toys and treats. Just be sure the toy/treat is reinforcing so that the clicker doesn’t lose it’s meaning to your dog!

Another important piece of training with toys is to be sure that the toy is valuable. One way to help with this is to purchase 3-4 toys that are just for rewards in formal training sessions. Most dogs prefer new toys to the toys they play with all the time. My dog even prefers a new Chuck-It ball to an older Chuck-It ball! Be sure to have a variety in your toy reserve – a ball and several tug toys with different textures might be a good idea. That way you can add variety to the toy reward too. This is just like the concept of choosing a high-value treat for practice with distractions or difficult behaviors. I often suggest using boiled chicken or string cheese when you aren’t training at home, because these treats are extra special for most dogs!

Finally, and most important, be sure to carry out the game for a bit with your dog during each reinforcement period. Most of the time, just giving your dog the toy won’t be reinforcing and therefore won’t accomplish anything. The interaction with the toy is the reinforcer, not just the presence of the toy.

One Last Note:  What if your dog doesn’t like toys or doesn’t play any of the games? You can teach him to enjoy these things, but it will take a little practice. One strategy is to use a toy that can hold food so that you can transfer the value of food to the toy. Another strategy is to give food as a reinforcer for engaging in play (you may have to shape this in the beginning). Squeakers, fur-like material and even the scent of a toy that another dog used can all increase interest in the toy for some dogs. It is worth your while to work on building value in at least one or two of the toy-play games so that you have a variety of reinforcers in your toolbox.

Week 2 “Clean” – Toys in the Box and Next Trick

Okay, this week was much easier for us than last week.  The video below is our second training session.  The trick needs fine tuning, but he is starting to really get it.

Next Trick!

For week 3 we are going to work on “hold”.  The goal is for Dan to take and hold an object (a variety of objects will be used) until released.  I am hoping to work up to 30 seconds of duration on this one.  He can sort of  do this trick, but we have never formally worked on it and he only holds the object for a few seconds.

Also, I think I need to change my posting schedule.  It has been difficult to post on Sunday nights, so the final trick and the new goal will be posted on Mondays instead from now on.  An update and shaping plan will be posted on Thursdays.

Don’t forget to post a photo of your dog doing one of the tricks from 52 Weeks to be entered in the October raffle!


134 Pieces of Kibble

When Dan was a puppy, I used kibble from each meal for his training sessions. Sometimes we used up his whole meal this way, sometimes just a handful.

Lately, I have noticed that my current habit is to just dump his food in his bowl and move on to the next task in my morning/evening pet care routine. Dan eats in about 2 minutes and then is on to something else.

Recently, I decided I really should be doing a better job of using a meal to enrich Dan’s life. I am always telling my clients about toys like the Kong Wobbler or the Buster Cube and we have every version of these food delivery toys I could find. But I had been slacking on using them myself. So I started giving Dan one meal a day in a food puzzle toy. He LOVES it and it keeps him busy for at least 15 minutes, even with toys he has used many times.

Last week, I also got back on track with using his dinner for our evening training sessions.

How many pieces of kibble are in your dog’s meal? Naturally, the number of pieces varies with size of kibble and cups of food given. Dan’s kibble is sort of big – about the size of a small grape. And he gets one cup of food at each meal.

I decided to count the number of kibble in a cup, just out of curiosity. There were 134 pieces of kibble!

On Monday, I only used about half for training. We sat on the front porch, I read my book, and we practiced “check” as dogs walked by. Dan did wonderfully, a dog even barked at him and though he struggled with it, letting out a growl, he maintained his composure and relaxed. The same dog went the other direction a little later and he barely noticed! This is major improvement for Dan. Dogs on the other side of the street he just watched calmly, though alert, and when I asked him to “check” he looked at the dog and looked back at me! before I clicked. This is the first time that he has offered to look back at me on his own. I simply delayed the click a half a second and he just did it. Such a good boy. But this is due to our practice of this behavior over the last year – we have probably practiced “check” hundreds of times with many different dogs.

On Tuesday, I decided to just go for it and use all the kibble. I wanted to see how long it would take to use it up. We practiced loose leash walking in front of the house in addition to practicing “check” with passing dogs and other distractions.  Do you have a guess at how long it might have taken us to use 134 pieces of kibble?

18 minutes. Yup. That means on average, Dan got a treat every 8 seconds. Now that’s a high rate of reinforcement!

If you had 134 treats to use in 18 minutes, what would you use them for? I challenge you to try to use your dog’s kibble for training at least a few times per week. It is an easy way to make it part of your day and your dog will LOVE the attention he gets during training.

Herding with Dan

This past weekend, Justin and I took Dan to his very first herding lesson. We all had a blast!

Dan saw some sheep in a pasture before we even started slowing down to turn into the drive and you could just see his face light up.

We arrived early and while we waited our turn, we practiced relaxed downs in the backseat of the car. He did great. In this type of situation, a new place that seems exciting, many times Dan will react to other dogs even from the car. The German shepherd who went before us walked by our car and although Dan was very aroused, he didn’t bark and was able to “check” (look at that) and remain focused on us.

The lesson began with our instructor working Dan. This was great fun for Justin and I to watch. There was a minute or two where Dan was barking, anxious, and just running in big, uncontrolled circles. His hackles were up; he was clearly on edge. However, he soon relaxed a little, his hair went down, his face relaxed, he stopped barking, and started to move in a more controlled way. It seemed as though he finally started to think about what was going on instead of just exploding! Our instructor started teaching him to turn away so that he would begin to move back and forth, bringing the sheep toward the handler, rather than just circling. Soon he had Dan taking the sheep exactly where he wanted. It was beautiful to watch.

Then it was my turn. Yikes! Poor Dan!! I have a LOT to learn.

The idea is that you turn your dog away from you by moving into his space, putting pressure on him, and when he turns you relax that pressure and let him do a quarter circle or so away from you around the sheep. Doing this back and forth teaches him to bring the sheep toward you. When you go the wrong way, the pressure is not let up as a reward, so basically your dog isn’t getting his reinforcer! I did this to poor Dan several times before the instructor provided more help and you could really see his behavior change. He became more frustrated, driving at the sheep harder and more aggressively. When the instructor stepped back in, Dan immediately relaxed again, doing his job as asked. When it was my turn again, I finally was able to move the right way. Although it wasn’t very smooth looking, it felt better and I was glad to be able to give Dan some resemblance of a reward. Good thing dogs are so forgiving!

I have to say, this was one of the best experiences I have had in dog training in a very long time. Dan and I have practiced so much impulse control, relaxation exercises, and loose leash walking – while these are necessary skills, they are all about fighting Dan’s instinctual and natural behaviors to run, chase, pull and bark. It was such a treat to get to embrace his natural abilities and see him just thrive in that environment.

Not only was it fun to watch Dan doing what he is meant to do, it was eye-opening to be the “student” again. I really know very little about herding. I just know the general goals and rules of herding trials. I have watched herding trials and been around sheep in several different environments, but watching and doing are two very different things!

I will be honest, it was very frustrating to do the wrong thing and feel like I couldn’t figure out how to do it correctly. This only lasted a few seconds before our instructor saved us, but that feeling is a really good one for any teacher or coach to experience regularly because, chances are, your students are feeling that way too!

Kay Laurence, a well-known dog trainer and speaker at the annual conference that my graduate school hosted, always talks about how important it is to her to always be learning something new. The last time I saw her, she was taking a glass-blowing class. I didn’t really understand that at the time, other than just for the sake of learning, but I was still in school. The experience of trying something that I had no idea how to do reminded me that learning is HARD! Getting to that successful moment was so important for me and extremely reinforcing.

We can’t wait for our next lesson!

Here’s a short clip of Dan doing his job, just a few minutes into our lesson:

What’s In A Click?

What’s in a click?

Well – nothing! Until you build the value into that noise, it means nothing to your dog.

How to build value in the click?

Before you can start to use a clicker, you have to introduce it to your dog. Here are the steps I like to use:Clickers

  1.  Take the clicker and click it a bunch of times before you go get your dog. This gets your “clicks out”. So many people want to play with it when you first hand it to them that this is always the first thing I do with my students ☺ After this you should never, ever click without giving a reinforcer afterwards.
  2. Now, get your dog and a handful of treats. You can use his kibble if you want to (and if he likes it).
  3. Click without moving your hands at all. Then pick up a piece of kibble and give it to your dog. Repeat until you have used up your handful (maybe 20 times).
  4. Now, when you dog isn’t looking, try to click. If he looks toward you, he’s got it. If not, do step 3 again until he’s got it.

*Important Note – even though your dog is just learning what the click means, you can still reinforce unwanted behavior when clicking and treating in this exercise.  It doesn’t matter much what your dog does during this exercise, as long as he isn’t jumping/barking/trying to steal food from your hand/etc.  Only click if he is doing something you wouldn’t mind him doing again.*

NOW, what’s in a click?

Once you have introduced the clicker, here’s what it can mean:

  1. Marker or Bridge: “That is exactly correct!”  The moment you click captures the behavior your are reinforcing.
  2. Positive Reinforcer: “Oh boy a treat (or other reinforcer) is ready for me!” Every. Single. Click. Should be followed by a treat or later another reinforcer. But it has to be a reinforcer, so start with treats. More on that in another blog.
  3. Cue or Discriminative Stimulus: “Better go get the treat!” The dog should orient toward the place where the treat comes from. This might be you, a spot on the ground near your dog, or maybe the treat comes to your dog so he shouldn’t move at all.

So, the click is a great communicator and in just that one little moment, your dog gets all of this information.

Why a click?

Some people are hesitant to use a clicker, after all it is one more thing to carry and try to hold onto with a dog’s leash, treats, poop bags, keys, etc.
But, the clicker is an excellent tool because:

  1. It is super fast. Your words are slow, but the click is quick. Just like your wiggly puppy. This makes timing the click much easier than timing a verbal bridge.
  2. It sounds like nothing else. It is only used in training. Verbal praise can often get overused in everyday interactions, but the click is saved for times when you definitely have a reinforcer available. This gets your dogs attention!
  3. It cuts through other noises quite well. In busy environments with noisy traffic, crowds, or barking dogs, the click is easy for your dog to notice.
  4. It helps the trainer (you) to pay attention to what you are trying to reinforce. Since it is such a pinpointed stimulus, you are likely paying more attention to try to get that click to happen at just the right moment.

Your backup clicker

A clicker is not magic. It is just a tool. There are places where it is the best tool and other times where there are better tools. And times where you forget to bring your tool!

Because of this, I always teach a verbal marker to use as a “backup clicker”. I use the word “yes!” and I say it in an enthusiastic, punctuated tone that is almost the same every time. Differently than my dog would hear me say “yes” when I am talking on the phone, chatting with my husband, or while telling him he is “suchagoodboy”.

Some people use the word “good”, “bravo”, or make a clicking noise with their tongue (this is what I do with the cat).

Whatever you choose for your backup clicker; teach your dog the meaning of this noise just like you did with your clicker. Then you will always be prepared if you need a different tool or leave your clicker behind.

So, go get your clicker (most pet shops have them), and start building value.  Then teach your dog something new!

Happy Training,