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!