A few weeks ago, I wrote an introductory post about clicker training - a popular, humane method for molding, luring, and capturing desirable behaviors from your dog. Time slipped away from me, but I am finally back to expand on that!
If your dog is not yet conditioned to associate the clicker with a reward, you must first accomplish this. If you know what motivates your dog (food is often the best), it will likely not take long for the association to take place. You simply click once, then reward your dog (and remember your timing and consistency!) After this is repeated various times, there is a great chance your dog will be really excited when he or she hears that click. Don't worry about trying to get your dog to do anything in this stage. Your main objective is to simply teach the dog that a click merits a reward. Once you have this under your belt, you can move on to teaching a command!
I will start with the very basic objective of teaching a dog to sit since that is a good place to begin with training. I mentioned a few approaches above that are commonly used to teach a dog how to pair a word with a movement. I'll talk about molding first. Molding is essentially using physical assistance to guide the dog's body to the position you are desiring. So, in this case a hand applying some gentle pressure to a standing dog's rear end would assist in guiding him or her to the sit position. This may or may not be a helpful approach, as some dogs will resist the pressure and because forcing a dog into a position is never desirable.
Luring a dog is simply using a treat or toy to guide your dog to the correct position. With the 'sit' command, it is most common to hold the reward slightly over the dog's head. This typically will cause your dog to look upward and elicit a natural response of sitting. I find that by combining both molding and luring, it provides a dog with ample guidance and successfully induces a sitting position. This would involve using one hand to hold the reward slightly above your dog's head while the other hand applies the gentle pressure on the dog's backside. Often, this combination of efforts will provoke a very successful sit!
Oh, but don't forget - the clicker ALSO needs to be in one of your hands. Because I am right-handed, I typically use my left hand to apply the pressure and hold both a treat and a clicker in my right hand. As soon as the dog successfully gets into position, click first and then reward! If you are anything like myself, you will likely feel like having four or five arms (and maybe a couple of brains) would be helpful for something as theoretically simple as this. Allow yourself some time to also get 'trained' in the art of timing, consistency, and motivation. It does get easier with practice! And, as if you aren't already thinking about enough things, you should refrain from pairing a command with the action until your dog shows signs of 'getting it'. In other words, don't set out to teach your dog a brand new command like this: 'Sit, Casey. Sit. Sittttt, Casey. Sit? Casey, sit. Ok, goooooood sit! Good sit!'
Sound familiar at all? It might look silly to read in text, but many dog owners are guilty of the above 'conversation'. While I am definitely an advocate for being encouragers to our dogs, the excessive number of times the actual command is given will unfortunately only muddy up your dog's brain. Think about it - your dog is standing and hears the word 'sit'. Your dog gets distracted by a noise outside, turns his/her head to look around, and hears the word 'sit'. Your dog hears its name and again hears the word 'sit', then finally does sit and once more hears the word 'sit'. They will be left having no idea what that 'sit' word really meant since it was paired with so many different things in the span of just a few seconds! A better approach is to rely on the molding and luring to 'communicate' with your dog initially. Dogs need time to become familiar with muscle movement before also having a foreign word paired with it. The bottom line is: wait until your pup is showing signs of sitting rather fluidly before pairing a verbal command. Then and only then, you can give the 'sit command right before they begin to move into the correct position and eliminate a lot of confusion for your dog!
Another effective way of using the clicker is to capture behaviors your dog does on its own. For example, if you come home from some errands and your dog greets you by sitting politely, you can click and reward this good behavior. Of course, not everyone cares if their dog jumps all over them when they come in the door, but for large dogs in particular, it can be very helpful to teach them to greet humans in your home properly. This is because not every person who enters your home will be a dog lover, or even if they are, they may not be able to handle the boisterous welcome clobbering that your 75 pound friend offers (i.e. small children and elderly people). If you do not start from an early age with your dog, capturing desirable behaviors may not be enough to fix a problem behavior that has already been learned. But, it can be a great additional way to reinforce good behavior as you are in training, or to start with on a puppy as soon as you bring him/her home.
Before you can move on to teaching more complex tricks, it is very helpful to master the basics. In the future, I will aim to explain how some fun tricks are taught, but it is important to ensure that you have a good foundation with your dog before moving forward. Keep training sessions short and fun and frequent! It can be a lot of fun if you approach it with the right mindset. And finally, allow your dog and yourself time to make progress together! There is no 'quick fix button' with dog training, and it will take patience and repetition to see lasting results.