You can train your dog to do, or not do, almost anything with the click of a button.
Sound too good to be true?
It’s not. Dog-training methods recently made a huge evolutionary leap, one that does away with pain and coercion.
It’s called clicker training, and the only equipment required is a tiny plastic toy that costs about $2.
This small, seemingly insignificant tool, which many of us baby boomers called a “cricket” when we were children, makes a sound that has moved dog training into a new age of enlightenment.
It goes “click-click.”
The basic principle here is operant conditioning, psychological jargon that means a person or animal is operating on its environment instead of the environment operating on it.
In other words, your dog learns to make positive reinforcement happen.
Instead of learning to avoid the pop or zap of a training collar (negative reinforcement), the dog learns to work for the sound of the click (positive reinforcement).
Clicker training is used by dolphin trainers.
“The first thing to understand about dolphin training is that we are working with animals you can’t punish,” writes Karen Pryor, an animal behaviorist and former dolphin trainer, in her book, “A Dog and a Dolphin 2.0, an Introduction to Clicker Training.”
“No matter how mad you get - even if the animal makes you mad on purpose, by splashing you from head to foot, say - you can’t retaliate,” she writes.
“You can’t use a leash or a whip or even your fist on an animal that just swims away.
“You can’t starve a dolphin into being cooperative. Dolphins get their fresh water from the fish they eat; if you take away the fish, they rapidly become dehydrated, they lose their appetites altogether, and then they die.
“Finally, you can’t even yell at a dolphin because they don’t care.”
What works is positive reinforcement. That’s where the clicker comes in.
Dolphins - and dogs, cats, horses, llamas, chickens and most other animals - respond to the sound because it’s a clear, sharp, unique noise. It’s unlike anything else in their environment.
The click means only one thing, an emphatic “!” for a job well done.
The key to clicker training is the timing of the click-click sound. It must be made at the exact moment the animal performs the desired behavior. The sound allows you to communicate with your dog in split-second precision.
“The clicker is like a tiny camera taking a picture of the precise behavior moment,” said Carol Byrnes, a dog trainer for Diamonds in the Ruff and perhaps the first person in the Spokane area to integrate the clicker into a dogtraining class.
“The look on the face of the dog is inevitably, ‘Oh, I understand! Why didn’t you tell me that before?”’ In the early stages of clicker training, the click-click sound is followed by a food reward. Eventually the food, and the clicker, are no longer needed.
They are just tools to use during the learning - or behavioral shaping - process. Once the dog masters the behavior, clickers are necessary only occasionally for refresher training.
So why not just say, “good dog,” followed by a food reward?
“If you’re a normal dog owner, you talk to your dog all day,” Byrnes said. “You probably give your dog treats or pats for free.
“Because of this, both lose their value as a marker or reward.”
Besides, no matter how hard you try, the sound of your voice won’t reach the dog’s ear with the precise timing of the clicker’s click-click sound.
Does training with a clicker mean you never correct your dog?
“Some people think that using positive reinforcement means you never reprimand the dog or control it physically,” Pryor writes in her book. “That’s unrealistic.
“Leashes are a fact of life for dogs. It’s necessary to keep a dog on a leash when you are going to strange places, or out in traffic, or amongst strange dogs. And of course your dog needs to understand the meaning of ‘no’ to prevent (it) from mouthing your hands and clothes, for example, or chewing the furniture.”
What if a dog makes a mistake while being trained with a clicker?
“Don’t click. That’s all,” Pryor writes. “Don’t say ‘no’ or jerk the leash or push the dog in the right direction.
“Adding punishment, correction or coercion to this system does not help the pet understand how to earn clicks. It does not make the pet more reliable despite the widespread conviction of many trainers that force is necessary. (Force) makes the dog less interested in learning.”
The applications for clicker training are endless.
It can be used to teach basic manners, show-ring stances, water and land retrieves while hunting, agility performance - anything you’d like your dog to know.
There are at least three area dog trainers incorporating clicker training into their classes:
Carol Byrnes at Diamonds in the Ruff - 325-RUFF.
Val Ellingson at The Family Dog - 747-7344.
Sandy Reeves at North Idaho School of Dog Obedience - (208) 772-6303.
Ask around. There may be others.
Read Pryor’s book. It will help you select the right person to help you train your dog with a clicker.
And remember, the beauty of clicker training is that your tool is your brain, not pain.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: About Dogs appears the first Sunday of each month. Mary Sagal is a member of the Dog Writers Association of America.