Monday, January 4, 2010

Clicker Training Beginnings

As we enter the new year, you may have adopted a new dog during the holidays or you might be thinking it's finally time to get your current dog trained. After your dog dove into the appetizers on the buffet table or couldn't wait for Christmas and opened presents while you were gone or created havoc when guests arrived, you've decided he definitely requires more manners. As you research trainers in your area let me tell you why you should seek out a trainer that offers a positive, motivational approach and most specifically a clicker trainer. In addition, a certified professional dog trainer will give you a trainer that has met specific training and testing criteria.

It may be helpful for you to hear about the paths that eventually led me to clicker training and why it is such an amazing, powerful way to train and interact with your dog. My involvement with dogs began back in the 1970's when I began showing in conformation and doing a bit of obedience competition. In those days, correction-based training was the predominant method of training and, while I never really liked giving collar corrections or setting my dogs up to make mistakes so I could correct them, it was the way it was done. Thank goodness, over the years I never resorted to the use of an e-collar or prong collar! Yes, it worked and yes I had "obedient" dogs. I even had what I considered to be a close, loving relationship with them.

While volunteering with our local humane society and after assisting with training classes, I began offering training classes through my area community education department. There I was instructing my students to "pull up and push down" to make their dogs sit or to "prepare for a right turn...right turn!" like a military drill sargeant. However, what was becoming evident to me was that while my students were following my instruction and getting the job done, no one was having much fun. As it had been for me for so many years, training was a chore that nobody liked very much, but something that had to be done.

Being always interested in improving my skills and subsequently my ability to more effectively instruct my students I came across Jack and Wendy Volhard and their Motivational Method of training. This method utilizes a form of lure and reward but still incorporates corrections. Being intrigued that at least the use of food treats were utilized, I attended one of their week long instructor training camps with one of my English Setters. I learned a great deal from them, we passed the Canine Good Citizen test and I came back ready to use my new found skills and information.

While we were at least using some food rewards and I was incorporating some new exercises, classes still resembled a boot camp of sorts with a generous supply of corrections. Many of the dogs were able to tolerate these corrections but I saw far too many shrinking away from their owners at the mere visual suggestion of an impending 'collar pop'. Although none of my students ever refused to inflict a correction or to physically manipulate their dog into executing a behavior, the looks on some faces showed a sad reluctance.

A couple of years later, still searching for a better way, I began hearing about clicker training. The first seminar I attended on the subject was given by Gary Wilkes, one of the early proponents of clicker training. I felt as if I had walked into a different world. This was a drastic change from correction training but, after seeing some amazing responses, quick learning, and absolute joy taking place with a variety of dogs, it was enough to convince me that I had to know more. My quest began to read and see as much as possible about this seemingly magical way of training.

My first attempt at this 'clicker thing' was with one of my own dogs, an English Setter rescue who was about 2 years old at the time. One of her quirks was a serious chase behavior - UPS trucks, bikers, joggers, etc. My hope was that clicker training would help change her perception of these scary things. As clumsy as I was in those early stages with the timing of the click and delivery of the treat, lo and behold - IT WORKED! In a few short weeks, I helped her develop a wonderful 'come' behavior if she began to engage in a chase, and in general a calm, relaxed, 'it's not so scary anymore' attitude as a jogger or biker went by. Best of all, I didn't have to correct or punish her during the process. I was fast becoming a convert and couldn't wait to see what else we could accomplish. We had great fun improving her basic skills as well as teaching some tricks, but most importantly, I realized I was developing a deeper connection and relationship with her. Clicker training helped me to communicate with her more effectively and efficiently and create a dog and human who both loved to learn and looked forward to training sessions.

I was sold and taught my first clicker training class to one of my puppy kindergarten classes. It was a success and very soon I transitioned all of my classes to clicker training. It was wonderful to see happier dogs and students, a more relaxed, friendly atmosphere and students leaving with a smile on their faces rather than a look of frustration from struggling to push, pull, and tug their dogs as in my previous classes. As one of my former students and also my friend put it:
"I am saddened as class comes to an end. Not only were my objectives met that I hoped to achieve with Joe, I also learned a great deal about myself."
My life had been changed and I knew that I would never walk through the correction-based training door again. I've been utilizing clicker training for about 12 years.

Clicker training has taught me that there is a much more peaceful and gentle way to train and interact with my dogs. I have always felt a deep bond with all of my dogs but somehow, through clicker training and it's concepts, my connection and relationship with Bentley and Griffin seems more multi-faceted and profound. Clicker training changed my attitude, has opened the door to more effective communication, has given me a deeper respect for a dog's decision-making capabilities, and has helped me to think outside the lines. It can do the same for you!