There are many advantages to using a clicker as a secondary reinforcer, rather than using a primary reinforcer while you are training. The biggest, is that it is an instantaneous cue to the dog that he is performing the right action. When using traditional reinforcers, there is often a time lag. For example, by the time you get the phrase “good dog” out, your dog could have gone from a correct action to an incorrect action, and you are praising the wrong thing.

Another example, is that by using the clicker, we separate the primary reinforcer from the exercise. Food tends to focus the dog on the food, not the handler or exercise, and the same goes for toys.

First, you have to teach your dog that the secondary reinforcer, is a secondary reinforcement. In other words, you have to teach him that the clicker is always followed by a reward. This reward should be meaningful. For example, for Quest, at first food wasn’t a reward, she didn’t want it. She did however, want to play tug, so I used that.

Teaching this, is very easy. Sit down somewhere comfortable with a clicker and your primary reinforcer. I’m going to use food as an example.

When the dog comes up to get a piece of food, click as you are giving the food. You’ll do this several times, at the same instant the dog is getting the food, you’ll click. As the dog gets into it, you can start separating the time between the click and the food. Click should always come first, than food. Randomize the time lag–sometimes almost immediately, other times even one or two minutes away. You want to be able to reward your dog while he is doing something, and then walk over and get the food.

You’re looking for a light bulb to come on in the dog’s head. When he hears the click, he should stop what he is doing and be ready for the reward.

By the way, you don’t really have to use a clicker. You can use a whistle, cluck your tongue, or even snap your fingers when the dog has performed a correct action. It should be a quick, short noise that can be reproduced. You also want something than can be heard from across the ring.

Using a Clicker in Obedience — Part II

Now that your dog understands that when he hears the clicker, you are going to reward him, you can use that to teach him just about anything. I’m going to focus on obedience.

First I teach the exercise, then I teach the command. There are several techniques, and you are only limited by your imagination.

I’m going to start with shaping a behavior that the dog already knows. You simply watch for a natural behavior and shape it. I started Quest out with the stand, as she naturally would stand and

stare at me when I had the food and clicker.

I sat on the couch, and waited for her to stand. As soon as she did, I clicked and rewarded her.

Note that I am NOT telling her to stand, but waiting on her to do it. In fact, speaking slows down the process at this point. What I am looking for, is for the dog to spontaneously offer me the

stand. I want the dog to hold the stand until I reward it, and offer it constantly.

This may take several sessions.

Once she is doing the stand spontaneously for rewards, then I can add the cue word, or command.

Here, I’m going to change procedures a little bit. I’m going to say the word, “Stand”, and if she does it immediately I’ll reward it. Again, the dog must stand until I reward it. If the dog does not offer the behavior or does not meet my criteria, I say “wrong”, and try again.

Again this may take several sessions.

You can teach more than one behavior, but keep the behaviors separated. Work on the stand, play with the dog or give it a break, than work the sit, for example.

When you have several commands taught, you’ll have to teach the dog the difference between the commands. Go through the same process as above. Give a command, if the dog doesn’t do it, say “Wrong”, and try again. Mix up the commands and give them randomly.

In the next one, we’ll talk about targeting.

Use of Secondary Reinforcers — Part III

There are several obedience exercises which are based on behaviors that the dog may not normally exhibit. These may prove too difficult, or too time-consuming by using shaping techniques alone, then we can use targeting. Targeting using the dog’s natural instinct to investigate items with their nose and their ability to focus on objects.

Many people have been using targeting in obedience, to teach exercises, but have complicated the process somewhat by using food. Some dogs are not motivated by food, and others are too distracted by food. I’m going to tell you how to use a neutral device to avoid some of those problems. I use a collapsible wand a little over two feet long. You could use a dowel, or even a riding crop.

First you must teach the dog to touch the item. I use the command “touch”, and use shaping techniques to get the dog to touch the item wherever it may be. Before you can use the target as a teaching aid, the dog must be capable of reaching both up and down to the floor to touch the target. They also need to be able to get up and follow the target, and to circle around in order to reach the target.

To begin with, show the dog the item, and reinforce every time he touches it. Keep it very close to his nose, and his natural curiosity will lead him to touch the item. Add the command after he has begun to consistently touch it. Continue shaping until you have the dog following the target in a full range of motion.

After you have a consistent touch command, you can use it to teach any number of exercises. It can facilitate the sit, in a breed that doesn’t naturally sit or find it difficult (like greyhounds). If you wish to teach the dog, a head-down prone position, it is much easier with targeting. Teaching the finish, heeling, fronts, jumps (especially directed jumping) and go-outs become very easy by using the target.

Let’s look at teaching the finish, an exercise difficult to teach using shaping alone. Since you know have a dog that will follow the target anyway, you merely sit the dog in front of you, and have him follow the target stick to heel position. Use the command touch, and reinforce with a click, once the dog is sitting in heel position. Eventually you’ll extinguish following, and just move the target from front to heel position, and the dog will follow. You’ll add the command “Heel” once your dog offers the behavior without following the stick on a constant basis.

As always, you’re only limited by our imagination. One of the things, that I find most fun about using this method of training, as opposed to traditional methods of training, is that there are many different ways to achieve your goals, and if one path isn’t leading you to the desired results, just drop it, and go a different route.