Where does your dog go when you have to leave him/her during the day?

03 March 2010

Clicking With Your Dog

For some dog owners,'positive reinforcement' training methods are a relatively new concept. Long-gone are the days of using a rolled up newspaper or shoving a dog's nose in its own excrement to try and punish an undesirable behavior (and for this I am very thankful, as are dogs everywhere). Positive reinforcement training takes a different approach to shaping dogs' behaviors: simply presenting your pup with a reward immediately following a good and desired behavior.

Think about it. If you were given an unexpected bonus at work simply for doing a good job, wouldn't you be more prone to keep up the good work in hopes that another bonus may be granted further down the road? I would surely stay with a company that treated me in this fashion as opposed to one that was constantly nagging me for what I didn't do well or scared me into maintaining a certain performance. In a similar fashion, a dog trained with positive reinforcement methods will trust its owner more and even desire to please more. Some dogs become so savvy in this method of training that they will begin to offer behaviors without even being asked. It is for these reasons that positive reinforcement is a most humane, effective training philosophy.

Perhaps the most well-known tool for aiding in positive reinforcement training is the clicker. Chances are you've seen (or probably heard) clickers if you have ever been in a pet supply store. Their name is not misleading - clickers are a small, hand-held tool that produce a clicking noise when the button is compressed. Some dog owners scratch their heads in wonder at these little contraptions, wondering how in the world a clicker will get their dog to perform (as if it is some sort of remote control for magically controlling a dog). In actuality, the sound of the click is not an inherent stimulus to a dog. Rather, it must be paired with something the dog is very motivated by (i.e. food, a toy, or physical affection) to be effective. With enough time and repetition, the clicker itself can become like a reward and you can cut back on the other reinforcement. But, you should always sporadically use different forms of motivation to keep it interesting for your dog.

All of the above may lead many of you to wonder: 'why not just use my voice?' The reason the clicker is preferable is because it is so consistent. When you talk to your dog, any number of things can vary - the volume of your voice, the inflection you speak with, the words you use, etc. Dogs are certainly not born understanding the human language, so the clicker is a more simple way of communicating. On a similar note, be sure that every person in your household agrees on which commands to use when training. If one person says 'down' and one person says 'lay' and one person says 'lay down' and all three of those people expect the same action from the dog, you can see how confusing it could get for your pup. Once a dog understands that with a click comes a positive reward and it follows a certain action paired with a certain word, they will definitely be tuned in.

Another important thing to keep in mind with clicker training is that timing is crucial. Think of a clicker like a camera. When you see a behavior you like, the click can be likened to 'taking a picture' of that behavior. It takes dogs less than 2 seconds to associate cause and effect. Meaning, if your dog sits on command and you need to reinforce him for it, you better have that treat (and clicker!) ready so he receives it within seconds. Otherwise, your 'picture' is off and you are not able to capture the exact moment that you wanted to. In this case, if your dog breaks the sit command and rises to stand, you have now captured that behavior instead.

In summary, the most important things to remember when clicker training are timing, consistency, and motivation. In future weeks, I will expand on more specifics regarding the use of clickers and plan on demonstrating these techniques with my own dog, Gabe. So check back!


  1. yay! i'm going to try the clicker with my new dog, so i'll be following this!

  2. aw, that makes me happy, erica! i saw some pics of him on facebook i think...what's his story?

  3. well we got him from the humane society. he's a year and a half old, and i think a rat terrier/basenji mix. he has some health issues: he's on medication for seizures and he also has some neurological issues that are unrelated to the seizures. he walks a little funny and has sort of a lazy eye. but he's really sweet, energetic, playful and cuddly. he's amazing on walks and hikes and seems to learn really quickly.

    the biggest problem i'm having right now is separation anxiety. the person who had him in foster care at the humane society for a couple months said he's crate trained and she left him alone during the day. but i've been trying to leave him alone for about 6 hours monday-thursday and his anxiety seems to be getting worse. he's pooped in the crate twice and seems to be freaking out, yelping and rubbing his head. he's fine at night though, in his crate. so i'm not sure what to do. the vet gave a prescription for valium, but i feel bad about doing that!

  4. i'm thinking maybe i should just quite putting him in the crate. could that be causing some of his anxiety?

  5. i should also mention that he's fine being left alone in the car.

  6. oh, i should also mention that i've had him for 10 days

  7. erica - separation anxiety is no quick fix, unfortunately. given that he's likely been passed around a bit in his life, that amplifies things.

    two things that can and should help are exercise and interactive toys. i would try my best to wear him out before crating him, and also leaving him with something like a kong toy or starmark toy, etc with some food or peanut butter in it. that will give him something to occupy his mind while you are gone and he'll have to spend some time working on removing the treats.

    you could try to leave him out of the crate, but if he is that anxious, there is a good chance he could do some damage to your house while you are gone. might be something to experiment with if you are only stepping out for a few minutes.

    it's important not to make a big deal of things when you leave. it can be hard to do, especially when they give you puppy dog eyes and look so forlorn. however, if you pet him or coddle him when he is in that state of mind, it only communicates that what he is doing is good and desirable. so, it's good to just be confident and swift about it. same with your return - if he is frenzied and going crazy when he sees you, just take him out of the crate and wait til he has calmed down to celebrate. this way, it reinforces a calm dog and not a chaotic one.

    i think there is hope for him, since you've only had him a few weeks. he will eventually catch on that you are never leaving forever, and his crate can be like a safe, fun place for him. i would figure out what he loves the most - what kind of food he likes, etc, and maybe reserve that very special food only for when you leave him. that way, he associates something very positive with your absence.

    it's something to just keep working at. what's tough is that it takes so much time to tackle separation anxiety. the best thing would be to start with small increments of time leaving him and then build that up over time, but i realize that's pretty difficult when you have a job and kind of HAVE to be gone for six hours at a time. regardless, if you have time in the morning to do a training session, after work, at lunch, on the weekends - whenever. take advantage of those times to reassure him that sometimes you are are not gone for all that long.

    i hope this is not too long-winded, but those are some things i would start with! it's sooo neat that you rescued - i am such a supporter of that! alfie is so lucky! (and cute - love his pics on facebook :))

    please let me know if some of that doesn't make sense or if you have more questions!

  8. thanks, that's really helpful! i'm going to try to work something out with my boss where i can work from home more often, so i'll try to start leaving him for shorter periods of time. yesterday i worked from home and left for a couple of hours to go to a coffee shop and he seemed fine when i got back.

    i also tried an experiment: i put him in his crate and turned it so he could see me while i worked on my computer, and he hated it (whining loudly, turning around, scratching the door). i didn't make any signs of leaving, i just sat there. it was strange because i thought he would calm down if he knew i was there, but maybe he was already in panic mode.

    luckily he loves food and is happy anytime he's eating treats. he loves his kong, and i was thinking about getting some chews that last a long time. i wish i could afford doggie daycare! i also read about this cool thing they have in portland called wagmasters, where they'll pick up your dog during the week and take them out to run with a pack of dogs. unfortunately it costs $30 a day, which adds up fast.

    i'll try out the things you said, and keep you posted. thanks for the help!

  9. i'd love to hear about his progress! hopefully it will never come to the point of needing a medication. time helps so many things. our oldest dog rowdy was about a year old when we got him, and honestly acted more like a wild animal than anything else when we brought him home. he would pace constantly, didn't like to be hugged, wasn't house-trained, and was suuuuper crazy. but after about 6 months to a year, some huge change had taken place and he honestly turned out to be one of the most wonderful dogs! it's amazing to watch that kind of transformation.

  10. Very informative, love your post, keep up the great work!