Way back when I was training Blackie, a trainer introduced me to the clicker. “What a gimmick!” I thought. But I had consulted the trainer because Blackie was a reactive dog. He was a rescue. I’m pretty sure what was going on was that now that he had a home, he was protecting it and the people (and animals) in it. We had brought Pepper to meet him before we adopted him, to make sure they would get along, and he was not reactive, then.
I had gotten Blackie to stop being aggressive towards people. And he loved cats (go figure). But I never could get him to like any dog besides Pepper (and, Koda, after Pepper died, who we brought in as a puppy). And not only could I not get him to like them, I also couldn’t get him to tolerate them or ignore them. He would basically lose it. My sister-in-law Laurel insisted that Blackie and her dog Duke would be great pals. I argued back and against my better judgment gave in, with the condition that we would let them meet off our property.
So we did that. I walked Blackie up the street and waited for them. Duke came near, and Blackie promptly nipped him in the butt. They never became friends. And after an incident in the woods with the clicker, treats, Blackie straining on his leash when a dog walked by (I had pulled him off the trail), and the treats flying out of my hand and scattering on the forest floor, I gave up on both Blackie being anything but a stay-at-home dog and the clicker.
Interestingly, years later—YEARS later—I found that clicker in the back of the junk drawer. And I clicked it. The next thing I know, Blackie was sitting next to me looking up at me. A testimonial that he had learned the clicker.
Fast forward to a month ago. Buddy and I went to our first puppy training class. And the trainer gave us all a clicker. She pointed out that she was not a fan when she was first introduced to it (by another trainer), but she has found that it really speeds up training. It is a “marker.” It marks the exact moment the dog does the desired behavior. And it can be used to ease the pup to the desired behavior, in steps. For example, the first thing she had us do was to click and feed a treat, which created the association between the clicker and the reward. Eventually, you get to the point where you click and the dog then expects the reward, but it doesn’t have to happen instantaneously. You can also do this with a marker “word.” I had already been doing that, using the word “yes” at the exact moment of Buddy doing what I wanted him to do. But the trainer (her name is Kat) said she had found that the clicker speeds up the training versus the marker word. So, after initially thinking, “nah, I’m not going to use this, I’m going to stick to the marker word,” I decided to give it another try. And as you can see from the photo above, I also added an elastic band on it so it can hang from my wrist and I can let go of it if I need to without losing it. I still use the marker word as well, because I’m not going to wear a clicker 24/7.
I’m glad I made that decision. The magic clicker came in real handy today. We went for a walk in the woods with my walking/hiking group, which includes people and their dogs. Buddy was doing great, and I kept practicing his recall, so he’d come back to me even with distractions. It was all going great. For awhile.
The trail was icy, and a couple of us were taking it more cautiously. Buddy wound up being ahead with the fast walkers. I called him back but he wouldn’t come. So I yelled up ahead for them to get him to come. Which they did. And then I called him again now that he could see me; he looked at me and turned around to continue walking with them. So then I asked them to please catch him and hold him for me. And I put him back on his leash.
We walked with him on the leash for awhile; I told him he wasn’t going to walk off-leash if he wasn’t going to listen to me. After awhile (5-10 minutes?) I decided to let him try again, using the words “stay with me,” and “wait.” He never got too far ahead (my two friends and one of the dogs were still a bit ahead of us). I could see him tempted to run on ahead, but then thinking about it and stopping and sitting. Every time he paused, I clicked. And I gave him a treat that went along with that click when he either came back or waited for me to come to him. That clicker marked him making the decision to stay with me. And I kept using it to reinforce him making that choice, which he continued to do.
I am amazed every day with this wonderful puppy of mine. He wants to do the right thing, he just needs to learn my expectations of him. Earlier, when he ran ahead, he was just being a puppy, having fun, wanting to stay with the dogs. My friend walking behind with me said that it was probably a pack thing and he felt like he was with us, and once he saw me he probably felt like he had checked in. I love that she knows dogs so well and I think she was right. But that’s not the behavior I want. Buddy’s check-in needs to be by coming all the way back to me when I ask.
And I asked.
And he answered.