Using a consistent training system opens up a two-way communication process between us and our pets. It is a method both parties can understand and stick to, whilst keeping the mutual bonds strong. The earlier we give clear signals, the easier life can be.
Dogs learn in the same way that we do – by making connections between events. If an event has a good outcome, they are likely to repeat it, and if the result is not so good they are less likely to repeat it. You might know this as positive and negative reinforcement, or to be less clinical and more descriptive – success and failure.
Ensure the activities that you like are successful for your pet. The emotional connection the dog makes guarantees they understand what we prefer. Signals of success can be saying ‘clever boy or girl’ in a happy manner, praising through stroking and cuddles, rustling a treat packet, or making a specific sound, such as a click.
A clicker is a small, hand-held device that clicks when pressed. This sound is the same each time the clicker is used, and tells an animal when it has done something right. The pet learns its significance by receiving a tasty food treat immediately after hearing the click; the click makes them feel instantly successful. It can then be used as a marker – pin-pointing something they have done as very good. Our pets learn quickly with a clicker as they know straight away what they have done to get their treat. Once they get into the clicker ‘game’, they do things to try and make you click. They stop watching your hand with the treats, and start focusing on the clicker hand. Offering you sits, downs, rollovers, and paws, they try their very hardest to make you click.
Their trying harder is an emotional element we can harness to teach them something new. Holding back on treats creates feelings of mild frustration in most pets – but only when they know the treats are available. This frustration drives them to keep trying and trying, and if that fails to try something else. For example, if you stand in front of a dog holding a food treat, it will show interest. Many dogs will sit, in the hope that this will be enough. When the treat is not forthcoming, they might stand up and sit down again. This could be repeated several times until the dog eventually gives up, and tries something else – maybe lifting a paw. This could then be marked with a click, and a treat given.
Any reward or treat on offer must be intensely gratifying to the dog or cat. Some are motivated by the prospect of getting food, others by physical contact or the opportunity to hold or play with a particular toy. It is important to remember that a dog needs to make the connection between events – what he or she does and the outcome. For the link to be made the ‘result’ needs to happen either during the event, or immediately after, within 2 seconds, as this is when the pet will be thinking about it. A few seconds later they could be thinking or doing something completely different. By using a success signal, we can mark the behaviour we approve of instantly, so there is no confusion and they know exactly why they are being rewarded.
Whilst using something like a clicker greatly reduces the need for constant repetition, our pets still need frequent practice. It is well known that animals can modify their behaviour depending on the environment they are in. Training a dog or puppy once a week in class may produce an animal that is wonderfully behaved in that room, but it can act like a complete idiot walking down the street or off-lead in the park. Generally when training your pet you should teach it something in one place, perhaps at home. Then practice in every place you might want it to ‘perform’. This could be the street, the vets, a local park, or the mother-in-law’s. Don’t stop there – ask your pet to do the task regularly – so it doesn’t forget!
To read more about dog training, read our article “Dog training: what you need to know”.