Clicker Training Through Games-part I


trusting paws

by Naomi Heck

When I woke up this morning I peeked out the window and was dismayed to see a sky full of thick gray clouds.  The past few weeks have been nothing but snow flurries, rain, or even worse, freezing rain.  The yard has turned into a mud pit.  I’d like to take Chase for our usual walks, but road salt isn’t good for his paws and I don’t like getting wet (yes, I’m a wimp).  I almost wish for a big snowstorm so Chase can get exercise leaping through snowdrifts.

Dreary weather is a good reason to brighten up your dog’s life with some indoor fun.   Last month’s post was an introduction to clicker training, so if you missed it, read up on that first.  In this post, I will discuss games you can play using the clicker.
I try to make everything I teach into a game.  I want learning to be fun, whether it is training a dog to go into a crate or getting him to stop attacking visitors.  Learning happens quickly when the lesson is fun.
There are several techniques you can use to elicit desired behaviors.  The 3 techniques that I use most are Targeting, Capturing and Shaping.  I will discuss targeting this month and save capturing and shaping for future posts.
Have some soft smelly treats cut up into little morsels that your dog can eat quickly.  A treat pouch that you wear is very handy.  Or you can place a bowl of treats on a table and stand next to it so you can reach over and grab a treat.  Don’t put the treats in a plastic baggie.  Having to fumble around to get the treat out will mess up your timing.
When you see the term C/T in my instructions below, it means click first, then give your dog ONE treat (within 2 seconds after the click).  The timing of the click is crucial; it pinpoints the exact moment your dog does the behavior you want.  The treat should always be given AFTER the click.  Clicker games will improve your coordination, observation skills, and patience while bonding with your dog.

Targeting involves getting the dog to move a part of his body toward an object.  The easiest way to do this is to teach him to touch his nose to the end of a long-handled mixing spoon or ladle.
1.  Begin by holding both the spoon handle and the clicker in one hand.  You could duct tape the clicker to the handle.  You will give your dog treats with your other hand.
2.  Start with the spoon end up close to your shoulder.  Then swiftly present the spoon downward to your dog so that the spoon end is 3 inches from his nose.  Hold it still there until he goes toward it to investigate.  C/T as soon as his nose touches the spoon.  Be sure to pull the spoon back up to your shoulder after you C/T to set up for the next trial.
Tips -If your dog bites the spoon, try clicking earlier, a split second before his mouth touches the spoon.  Then pull the spoon away before he has a chance to bite it.  Do not C/T for bites.
– If your dog is not interested in the spoon, try smearing a tiny bit of peanut butter or cheese on it for the first 3 to 5 trials.  C/T when his nose moves toward the spoon.  Switch to an empty spoon.
3.  When your dog is reliably touching the spoon held 3 inches away, try putting it 6 inches from his nose so he has to move a little more to reach it.  Gradually increase the distance every 10 trials or so, until he runs to you from across the room to touch the spoon you hold out for him.
4.  For variety, teach your dog to follow a moving target.  Present the spoon near his nose and slowly pull it away from him so he follows it for a few feet.  C/T for following rather than touching.   Gradually increase the distance he has to follow to earn a C/T.  Try both straight lines and curves.

Targeting is used by animal handlers for a variety of purposes.  Zoo animals are taught to stay still for routine veterinary procedures by targeting a stationary object.  Dog actors on TV are taught complex moves using targeting.  Targeting is used in canine sports such as agility for accurate placement on the equipment.  Service dogs can be taught tasks such as turning on light switches or pushing automatic door buttons by targeting a small piece of duct tape with their nose or paws.  The possibilities are endless!  Here are some ideas for you to try at home after you have trained the basic concepts described above:
Go to Place:
Use the moving target technique to get your dog to go stand on a bath mat.  Have your dog follow the spoon until he is standing on the mat.  C/T when he arrives on the mat.  When he catches on to the game and starts moving toward the mat on his own, fade out the target (make the spoon movement smaller and/or shorter) until he can do it without the spoon.  You can replace the spoon with a hand signal (pointing to the mat) or add a verbal cue like “Place”.  Eventually teach your dog to sit or lie down once he gets to the mat.  The mat itself becomes the target.
The way I use the Go to Place skill:
– Every morning my son’s bus driver comes to take him to school.  Chase whines and acts insane with glee when he hears the van pull up because the driver brings him a pocketful of biscuits.  I tell Chase go to a carpeted area away from the door.  He must wait for me to open the door and then tell him to go out.  Without this structured routine, Chase would knock me over as he bolts out the door.

  • There is a small bath mat on the kitchen floor between the edge of the counter and the kitchen table.  If Chase is lying on the mat, he gets an occasional treat tossed to him.  I’ve been doing this ever since he was a puppy.  Now when he hears me chopping food, he comes running and plops down on the mat to wait for a tidbit to come flying his way.  When I sit down to eat, he lies on his mat and waits for a treat when I finish my meal.  It sure beats begging at the table or getting underfoot while I cook.

Send Out to a Stationary Target:
Prop your target upright in a weighted milk jug or detergent bottle.  Teach your dog to go touch the target (click) and come back to you for the treat.  Start just 2 feet away from the target.  When he understands the game, gradually increase the distance one foot at a time until you can send him across the room to touch the target and return to you.
The way I use the Send Out skill:
On rainy days, I exercise Chase on the stairs.  I place the stationary target on a step and send him up from the bottom.  He has to come back down for his treat.  This tires him out and is great aerobic exercise.  I should do this myself to get in shape.  Here is a video of Chase learning this game:

Silly Parlor Tricks:
You can use targeting to teach Spin, Take a Bow, Sit Pretty (begging position), Roll Over, etc.  I taught my cat to jump through a hoop using a target stick (there is a link to the video in last month’s post).  You are only limited by your creativity.  Experiment, have fun and entertain your friends!

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2 Responses to Clicker Training Through Games-part I

  1. Naomi Heck says:

    It’s never too soon to start. Just keep it simple,fun and short. Here’s a video of my puppy’s first clicker session at 8 weeks of age.


  2. Todd says:

    what is a good age to start this?

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