...So, last week, I had a whole week of fascinating and divergent clicker training experiences. Three different dogs with totally different stories and sets of problems, but all with the same happy result: clicker training is without a doubt THE best dog training method I've ever seen (or used) in 30 years with my own dogs and 13+ years as a professional trainer. As you'll see, it has incredibly varied application to all kinds of behavioral issues.
Dog #1 was a 4.5 year old boxer named Moose. Boxers in general are very high-energy dogs, and if they're not taught good manners early, they can get pretty crazy as adults -- especially when greeting human visitors or other dogs on the street. After belatedly concluding they hadn't done enough puppy training, Moose's mom and dad finally decided to do something about his unmanageable manners. Though early training is best, it truly is better late than never...and it's almost never too late. On my first visit a couple of weeks ago, Moose was so wild, we had to talk without him in the room for a half hour, and only then bring him in (on leash, of course). He lived up to his wild-and-crazy billing, with frantic barking and flailing on the hardwood floor ("I needz sneakerz!!!") as he tried to tackle me in order to say "Hi!" -- until we got his attention with some gooooood treats, and started giving him clicks and treats every time he managed to sit still for a second. By the end of the hour, Moose was hooked on the game and already showing some improvement.
On my second visit, Moose's wild-greeting behavior lasted just a few minutes. Over the course of the next 55 minutes, he mastered sit (which he sorta already knew but had a hard time doing when over-excited...which was much of the time), figured out down (a command he'd never done before), even allowed me to start teaching him to stay (the one "must-know" command for dogs to learn patience and curb over-excited behavior). Then Moose did some nice stays for mom and dad, and displayed a level of focus and attention far beyond any rational expectations. What's more, Moose enjoyed the whole hour of training because it wasn't work for him -- clicker-training made it a fun game for a dog who reveled in his new-found power to make humans give him clicks and treats simply by sitting, lying down, staying and watching for just a few seconds at a time. Superstar Moosie!
Dog #2 was a 6-year-old Springer spaniel named Charlie. I'd first worked with Charlie and his family when he was a baby puppy (before I started using clicker training). Then, almost two years ago, I got a call from Charlie's mom because he'd started biting workmen coming in and out of their house. By that time, this nice family had added a child and another Springer spaniel puppy (Molly), so things were getting complicated anyway -- too complicated for Charlie as he tried to protect his home from invaders. Poor, stressed-out, mixed-up Charlie! Obviously, dogs who bite out of misguided territorial/protective instincts or fear can be a real problem. By then, I had added clicker training to my menu of options, so we used it to both refresh Charlie's education and train Molly on her basic good manners. The dogs loved clicker training, and I hoped Charlie's humans would use that and a variety of management strategies to keep him out of situations where he'd feel compelled to chomp on visitors.
Recently, unrelated to dog training, I had the occasion to contact Charlie's mom, and I also asked how they were doing with his biting. Unfortunately, for various understandable reasons, Charlie's family hadn't been able to shield him from situations which made him anxious enough to bite, so the problem was unresolved. When I swung by Charlie's house last week, I found him patrolling his spacious, invisible-fenced front yard, as I expected. Not knowing whether he'd remember me from two years ago, I came prepared with clicker and treats, and I was on high alert myself (since I'd prefer to not be a chomp-ee if I can avoid it). Well, Charlie's initial greeting was not at all welcoming: angry warning barks and looking fearsome. Then, from about 10 feet away, I tossed him some treats, for free. He stopped barking long enough to find the treats in the grass and eat them. Each time he stopped to munch, he got a click and another treat. Within a couple of minutes, Charlie relaxed, as if to say, "Ohhh, yeah! I remember you...and I remember the clicker game! More noms, please?"
That was an interesting experiment for me, something I'd never tried before: would a dog who had lots of fun the last time I saw him remember me from almost two years ago, and would I be able to get him re-interested in clicker games quickly enough that he'd relax and forget about biting me? The answer was a resounding "Yes!" -- and though I was relieved, I wasn't really surprised, now that I know the power of clicker training. So I had a nice visit with Charlie and Molly (instead of searching for disinfectant and a big Band-aid). And I'm hoping Charlie's humans were reminded of the relative ease with which they could duplicate what I did to help their otherwise smart and lovable dog to relax before he feels compelled to bite somebody.
Dog #3 was potentially the toughest case -- a beautiful mixed breed puppy named Chelsea: less than two years old, with Golden retriever fur and tail, an elegant face and perky ears. As is often the case, it was hard to pinpoint what breeds might be in her genetic mix, beyond Golden retriever. Chelsea has a mystery history, other than knowing she was a skinny stray before being rescued and adopted.
I can't imagine anything more terrifying for a puppy than life as a stray: other dogs scaring you off, people yelling at you to go away, noisy and threatening traffic, being cold, tired and hungry. Some dogs carry those psychological scars for the rest of their lives. It's no surprise strays often have fear and fear-aggression issues -- and that described Chelsea. The first time I visited, she waited in the driveway with her mom. The instant she realized I was walking toward her, she flipped out with ferocious barking and lunging. So Chelsea was put back in the house, and we humans parleyed in the living room about possible training strategies. Chelsea's vet then prescribed Prozac to help reduce her anxiety.
We started all over two weeks later. This time, I came into the house without Chelsea present. I waited at the far end of the living room, armed with hot dog chunks, and her mom brought her in. Chelsea saw me and started barking again, but this time her mom simply sat with her outside the living room, distracted her with hot dog treats, and rewarded her for calm behavior. Now, Chelsea's family had previously observed that the sharp snap of a clicker seemed to upset her, so we had two options: trying a quieter plastic clicker (more like the soft click of a ballpoint pen) and muffling the standard loud metal clicker in a pocket or under a pillow. I decided to try the plastic clicker first -- Chelsea's ears twitched, but without great alarm. Within minutes, Chelsea got the connection between her calmness, the soft clicks and the hot dog treats.
So we took a literal step forward: Chelsea entered the living room, close enough for me to start tossing her treats, accompanied by progressively less muffled clicks. We humans continued to talk, her family started asking her to do things like sit and down in order to earn treats, and we could see her anxiety replaced by interest, and -- more importantly -- curiosity about me as a source of hot dog noms! At one point, she crouched her shoulders, lowered her head, and stared at me without blinking. But it wasn't a threatening stare, it was Border collie "eye" -- that intensely-focused look dogs give to a herd when they're they're working: "Sheepies? You are mine." Or, in this case, trying to hypnotize me into dumping all the hot dogs on the floor for her! At that moment, putting the stare together with other behaviors, it became pretty clear Chelsea was part Border collie. And knowing that alters how we'll approach her training and personality.
As our session drew to a close, Chelsea was not only not afraid of me, she was totally engaged in trying to figure out how to get me to give her clicks and treats. I'll be seeing her again soon, and I don't know what the future holds for this smart, heartbreakingly gorgeous puppy trying to overcome so many scary experiences in her short life. But we know clicker training will help her open up and embrace training with puppy joy, and help her humans as they ease her adjustment to the secure life with a loving family that all dogs deserve.
I'm a relative newcomer to clicker training, only been using it for two and half years. I sure do wish I'd started using it decades ago! People who become dog trainers generally choose this path -- why? -- because we love dogs. There should be no room for human macho in dog training, no feeling of accomplishment in physically dominating an animal who can be taught how to behave by gentle, enjoyable methods.
Now that I've seen how effectively it works, with all kinds of dogs in all kinds of situations, I'm going out on this limb: any trainers who fail to adapt to new information -- fail to update their methods to include clicker training -- are flirting with malpractice, and doing their clients (dogs and humans) a huge disservice. There's no reason to ever use fear and pain in training any animal. Ignorance is not an excuse.
No matter how old your dog may be, no matter what breed, whether you're dealing with serious behavioral problems or just want to teach your ol' dog some new tricks...if you love your dog, you owe it to yourself to try clicker training. If you live in Central Maryland, you can get in touch with me through www.dayonedogtraining.com. You can also find out lots more info from www.clickertraining.com.
Howard Weinstein started Day One Dog Training in Howard County, Maryland in 1998. You can reach him through www.dayonedogtraining.com. He's also the author of Puppy Kisses are Good for the Soul & Other Important Lessons You & Your Dog Can Teach Each Other (available at Amazon.com or www.dayonedogtraining.com).