Clicker Training with Your Toy Breed Dogby TD Yandt
Clicker training is a wonderful way to teach your toy breed dog. It's a friendlier, more gentle form of training that encourages your furkid to think for him/herself. By encouraging your little one to really think about what they are doing you end up with a confident happy pet. This is especially important for small dogs who often end up being seriously hurt when using harsher training methods.
To "charge" the clicker simply take the clicker in one hand, and have treats at the ready in the other hand. Have your little one in front of you. For this portion of the training it doesn't matter what your dog is doing, they can be sitting, standing, laying down, playing, being silly... it really doesn't matter. You aren't training a behavior, but teaching them what the click means. For clicker training to work your dog needs to know that the click means treats are coming. Now, click and give your little one a treat. This should get their attention. Do it again, and again. Click, and treat. Click, and treat. Within a few minutes your pet should have this figured out. They hear a click, and they'll get a treat. This is a complete training session. Once they've figured out to get their treat when they hear a click, the session is over. Give one more click and end with a "jackpot". Always end each session with a big prize (a small handful of treats) and always end with a success.
When you first begin clicker training it's best to keep sessions very short, only two or three minutes at a time. This way your dog will be able to stay focused, and it will encourage him/her to feel as if it's a game, and something really exciting and special. Several short sessions a day is ideal. Eventually (with a high drive dog) you can work up to sessions that may be as long as an hour.
Now that your small dog knows that the click means treat you can begin shaping behaviors. Have your Clicker in one hand, and have the treats at the ready in your other hand. Watch your furkid. Clicker training is all about being aware of even the slightest movements... a change in where your dog is looking, a flick of their tail, a slight head turn... all are potentially worth a click.
Start by deciding what you want to work towards. Something like a sit or down would be a good place to start as these are both things that your small dog are likely to do naturally without any in between steps. After grabbing your clicker and your bag of treats sit normally and watch your furkid. Eventually he/she will do either a sit or a down. Click the instant that butt (or belly) hits the ground. Give him/her a treat, forcing them to leave the sit (or down). Watch again.
Patience, Consistency, and Repetition are the three keys to successfully training your pet. And all three are equally important.
Keep watching your toy breed dog, and waiting for them to repeat the behavior that earned the last click. As soon as they repeat, click and treat again. Their sit (or down) should keep increasing in speed after the last click. You will really begin to see your dog thinking, as they try to figure out exactly what it was that earned them the previous click.
Once your furkid is consistently offering the behavior you are working towards start adding the cue word. In this case, it's sit (or down). Only start using the cue once you are about 80% sure that the dog will do it. Right before the dog is about to sit, say "sit", and as his/her bottom hits the floor, click and treat.
For more advanced behaviors you may need to slowly work up to the cue point. For example, if you want to teach your small dog to turn in a circle, you may need to start with only the turn of the head.
If your little one is sitting facing you, click for even the slightest movement to the side. This could be him/her looking over his/her shoulder, turning his/her foot to the side, or just his/her eyes glancing to the side. Watch your pet very carefully to make sure you don't miss these slight movements. Click and treat for even the smallest glance.
You will want to up the stakes slowly, and increase what your little one must do to earn the click. Once your pup is reliably looking over their shoulder with every click, withhold the click and wait for them to offer a little more for the next click. This little more may be as small a difference as the degree to which they turn their head. Do not require too big a change, or you may have to step back and start again. The key is very small baby steps. The smaller you can break things down, the better. If you have successfully broken down the steps to the desired behavior your dog will have it figured out within a few training sessions.
Another example would be teaching the "place" command. The place command is very useful as it teaches your dog to go to a particular place and wait there until released. This is excellent if you have guests over, or if you are working with something you don't want your little dog to get into.
Choose a place in the room, or on a particular item like a bath mat, dog bed, or small rug. At first you will want to click and treat any time your small dog looks towards that place or item. Once reliably looking in the right direction, begin to click every time he/she takes even one step towards the mat. The next step might be having to take two or three steps towards the place you have in mind. Then start clicking and treating for four or five steps in the right direction. Up the stakes even further by requiring him/her to actually touch the mat, whether with a paw, or a nose, a touch is a touch. Eventually only click when you have two feet on the mat, then three feet, then all four feet. After several training sessions start requiring a sit on the mat, or a down on the mat. Once you have this reliably, then start adding the cue. So "mat", "bed", or "place" means go to that item (or place) and lay down. To make things even more complex, start delaying the click, so that "place" also means stay there. Start by waiting only one or two seconds after the down, and slowly work up to waiting ten seconds before the click.
You can really train very complex behaviors very easily using the clicker, which is one of the reason's it's such a fantastic way to train Service Dogs. Advanced tasks, such as making a bed, doing the laundry, or getting a bottle of water out of the fridge can all be trained using the same method. Break things down into very small steps and you and your toy breed dog will be successful every time.
Ms. Yandt's goal is to postively impact the lives of pets and their people by providing an education on individual species, their proper care and the use of operant conditioning to enhance the human-animal bond. You can learn more about TD and her animal family at www.noselicks.com
Originally published at Suite101.com, 3 Feb 2003