Have you ever watched a beautifully trained dog doing whatever their human is asking them to do and wondered ‘How do I teach my dog to do that?’ The truth is that the list of things you can teach a dog to do is almost endless. As for the how? The simplest answer to that involves time, patience, a clicker and some tasty rewards.
A growing number of canine professionals now refer to teaching dogs as coaching rather than training. The difference between the two is quite simple. Training is teaching a dog to respond to a certain cue, and it is much like the lists of dates or important people many of us learned at school; there is one correct answer. Coaching is a somewhat more organic process in that it involves taking the natural behaviours that a dog might offer and picking out the ones we want, or shaping them in steps to become the action that we would like the dog to take. This is much more of a problem solving approach for the dog, increasing their confidence as they realise they have all the answers if they just try new things.
Clicker training is a technique that is widely used for canine coaching, and one I have used to teach my dog many things. It requires generosity of rewards in the beginning (and a click must be rewarded every single time for clicker training to be effective) and good timing to mark the right moment and behaviour we want. We all start out with less than perfect timing when first clicker training so, if you get it wrong, do not despair and just keep practicing and you will get better.
The wonderful thing about clicker training, and how I can use it to teach my dog just about anything, is the way that complicated tasks can be broken down into little steps. When first introducing a new behaviour, you can reward any little movement towards what you want. The click (or tongue noise, marker word like ‘yes’ or anything we might choose to say if not wanting to dedicate a hand to holding a clicker) shows the dog the exact instant of when they are doing what we want and that reward is coming. This means there is no need for frantic fumbling at a pocket or pouch to grab the treat and have the dog possibly move to a different position so that the wrong behaviour is reinforced. By using this technique with skill, we can then begin shaping that initial behaviour into the final one that we want by waiting for the dog to offer a little more, touch the target for a little longer, move a little closer etc.
With patience, observation, a clicker and a full treat pouch, I can teach my dog almost anything. With those same tools, so can you.
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