Ask the clicker trainer

What you click is what you get

Q: I just brought my new dog home from the shelter. He doesn’t pay any attention to me. What can I do?

A: Congratulations! Shelter dogs can make wonderful pets. Have faith in your new dog and give him four to six weeks to settle in and become himself. Meanwhile, here are some fun games to play that will help your relationship blossom.

First things first: Get a clicker. Clickers are excellent training tools. What you click is what you get. You can get them from novelty shops, in catalogs, and from clicker-happy dog trainers! Anything that makes a distinct, short sound will do. Clickers are good training tools for dogs because they produce a distinct sound (it won’t get confused with other similar sounds)and allow you to perfect your timing. Unlike voices, the click sound carries no inflections that can slow training progress and is easily transferred from person to person.

For example, you might say “Good boy!” to reward a desired action, but no matter how hard you try, your voice inflections will change each time you say it. Dogs are very sensitive to voice inflections, so they always know just how happy or unhappy you are with their action. The clicker removes the inflections so you can reward consistently, even if you happen to be in a bad mood during a training session. (Training while in a bad mood is not advisable, but that’s a different article!)

Okay. You have your clicker, so now it’s time to turn your dog into a clicker addict. Get a supply of small, soft, easy-to-eat treats ready and keep them close by. Then either use the food to quietly lure your dog to the area where you want to train, or take the clicker and treats to the dog. Of course, preparing the treats will usually get most dogs’ attention, so he might already be there! Click! and toss or give the dog a treat. It doesn’t matter what he’s doing right now. We just want him to learn to associate the click with the treat. Keep your body language to a minimum. Continue clicking and treating until your dog whips his head around and gives you that cute doggie look we all love as soon as he hears the click sound. This should not take long, and it should happen after every click before you go on to the next step.

Ready for the next step? Your adopted dog needs to associate his new name with something pleasant. Now we up the ante in the clicker game. Say your dog’s name, then wait until he looks at you. As soon as he looks at you, click, then treat. Remember, it’s always click then treat. Turning his head and looking at you should happen after he hears his name. Click and treat only when he responds to his name. Sometimes you might have to click when he just turns his head in your general direction. Once he gets used to getting a click and a treat when he hears his name, the only problem you might have is getting him to go away, but I think we can all live with that one! A dog’s name is a cue for him to turn, look, and ask “What do you want?” so don’t use his name unless you really want his attention. Give him a nickname you can use when you’re talking about him with family or friends.

Making things more difficult is fun for everyone, so let’s play the Eye Contact game. This helps the dog to really understand that he is responsible for his own actions and that he controls the click. Well, we’ll let him believe he controls it, anyway! We click the actions we like, so the dog repeats the actions that bring the click and treat.

Take a treat in your hand and hold it a short distance from your face. Wait quietly. Have patience. Some dogs are hypnotized by food and will slip into a “trance.” Others will maul you in every imaginable way to get the treat. Just close your hand, or raise it, and let him exhaust all his options. When he finally looks away from your hand and toward your face, click and treat. With a little work, he will eventually only glance at your hands, then look into your eyes. When he does this, click and jackpot! – give him a cookie party (lots of cookies), pet him, and tell him how wonderful he is. Get really excited. If you fake your excitement, your dog can tell.

The eye contact game can get as difficult as you like, but if you make it too hard too fast, your dog will get frustrated and look for something easier to do. If this happens, lower your expectations or start over. Moving the treat around and changing hands or working for longer eye contact time will be more challenging. But please remember to make only one thing more difficult at a time.

These games will start you on the road to a great relationship with your dog. Go ahead and click and treat your dog with his meals. This is a great training time because he is hungry and you have what he wants: food! Don’t forget to play with and exercise your dog. A tired dog is less likely to create games with your household and personal items. Dogs are fun and clicker training makes them even more fun.


Jackie Krieger & Cacky Vincent of Dew Drop Inn Dog Training

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