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German shepherds are intelligent and highly trainable dogs. When a dog is well-trained there appears to be an effortless connection between owner and dog. However, for many owners, in reality, that effort involves tugging on collars, shouting, or even punishing the dog for wrongdoing. Down this path lies an anxious dog who obeys out of fear.
However, clicker training offers another way. The dog learns that the click means he gets a treat. Then you simply click at the exact moment the dog does as requested, and he makes a mental connection between that action and getting a reward.
And it gets better still, because once the dog has learned a skill, you can phase out the treats and eventually the clicker, leaving just that immaculately behaved dog you dream of having.
Developed by Karen Pryor, clicker training is a powerful way of communicating and motivating any animal (not just dogs!) The idea is that the click of the clicker marks the precise moment the dog exhibits a desired behavior (such as sitting or staying still) and he understands this as a signal that he's earned a reward.
The first step is to teach the dog to make the connection between clicker and treat. Then use the clicker to mark the desired actions. Then once the dog has learned the skill and is repeating it regularly on command, you phase out the treats and the eventually the clicker.
Clicker training is a marvelous way to train dogs and an intelligent breed like the German shepherd should pick the basic principles up quickly. Indeed, much of the skill of clicker training lies in the owner timing the click perfectly, so that the dog understands what he's being rewarded for. It is this timing, rather than the need for complex equipment, which is key to success.
The basic items you'll need include:
- A clicker
- Small, bite-sized tasty treats
- A treat bag or pouch in which to keep rewards handy at all times
- A collar and leash
- A ball or tug toy
- A quiet place to train
The What 'Click' Means Method
Understand the aim of clicker training
You are going to use the clicker to exactly mark the moment the dog acts correctly. Think of this like taking a photograph and capturing the exact moment of interest by pressing the shutter button. The dog links the click to getting a reward, and so he realizes that when he acts in a certain way when you say a certain way, he gets a great treat. This makes him pay attention and listen out so that he can reap the benefits of those easy pickings. The first step is in this chain of events is to teach the link between the click and getting a treat.
Treat and click
To teach the link between the click and getting a treat is easy, and can be done in a couple of ways. First, try tossing a treat on the floor. When the dog gobbles up the treat, press the clicker. Repeat, tossing another treat on the floor. Click again at the precise moment the dog eats the treat. Keep repeating, and the dog will quickly build a link between hearing the click and eating treats.
Treat and click #2
An alternative method is to restrain the dog and let him see you scatter a handful of treats on the floor. Let him go and each time he eats a treat, click him.
Test out the link
See if the dog has made the connection, by clicking and watch to see if the dog immediately looks to the floor. If he does, this means he has made the mental connection between hearing the click and receiving a treat and is seeking out the treat he believes is on the floor.
Use the click to mark a moment
Now when the dog behaves well, you have a way of saying how clever he is that will motivate the dog. For example, if he sits instead of rushing through an open door you can click, to let him know sitting is great. Or, if he's barking and stops for a few moments, you can click to mark the silence and let him know that quiet is good. The click enables you to precisely tell the dog what it is he did that you liked.
The Theory Into Practice Method
Basic 'sit' command--step 1
You have an unruly German shepherd and want to teach him to sit. Take a treat, hold it near his nose to get his attention. Now move the treat slowly over and behind his head so that as he follows the reward his bottom automatically sinks to the ground. This is the moment you want to mark with a click. This tells him that "Butt on the ground gets a reward." Keep his attention briefly then give the treat. Repeat and practice.
Basic 'sit' command--step 2
The dog will soon anticipate what you want and start offering a 'sit' in order to speed up getting the reward. This is a good time to add the verbal cue of "sit". Then when the dog sits, click, and reward. What you have just done is communicate to the dog that when you say "sit", when he parks his rear on the floor, he gets a treat. What's not to like?
Another example: 'heel'
If your dog tends to surge ahead when leash walking, then consider using the clicker to retrain him. In this example you'd start the walk and click when the dog walks by your heel. This tells him that a slack lead, walking beside Mom, is a good thing that earns a treat. If he surges ahead, stop in your tracks and say a disappointed "Uh-oh!". Call him to you, and then resume walking but in the opposite direction. Now when he's at your heel, click and reward him. By doing this you send out two messages (1) Walking to heel is good and (2) Pulling gets you nowhere.
Make the rewards less predictable
Over time, it's likely the dog may become complacent if you reward him every time you click. To keep the dog focused and working, start to build a degree of uncertainty into whether he'll get a treat when clicked, or not. This may sound contrary to earlier advice, but you only start to do this once the dog knows the command in order to keep him sharp. For example, the dog now walks nicely to heel. Instead of click-reward every few steps, keep clicking but only offer a treat every third click. This makes the dog work harder to please.
Extend the time between click and treat
Another tip is to make the dog wait a little longer each time, between the click and getting the treat. This works well for static commands such as 'sit', 'down', or 'stay'. You click the dog when he sits, giving the message that he did great. However, instead of giving the treat immediately, you make him wait in the sit position for a few seconds, then give the treat - hence teaching some impulse control as well as the 'sit'.
The Hints and Tips Method
Do I have to use a clicker?
Believe it or not, some dogs are fearful or anxious of the sound of the clicker. If this is the case then you can choose another distinctive sound to replace the clicker. Try using the soft click of a retractable pen or even make a quiet click noise with your tongue. Key is choosing a distinctive sound that the dog won't hear under normal circumstances.
Phase out the treats
As the dog becomes accomplished at a command, you can phase out treats and use verbal praise or a fuss instead. Reserve the treats for tricky new commands that you want him to learn.
Motivate the dog
Clicker training works best when the dog really values the reward. If your dog is not food motivated, then work out what it is that he really loves. For example, you could reward him with praise, fuss, a game of tug, or chasing a ball.
Don't overuse the clicker
Try to use the clicker in a precise way to mark an exact moment. Vague or repeated use of the clicker may confuse the dog as he won't understand precisely what it is that's being rewarded.
Make training fun!
As with all training, work within your dog's powers of concentration and keep the mood fun. Use a happy tone of voice and act excited when he gets things right. If the dog starts to make mistakes then bring the session to an end with a command he can do, and try again later in the day.
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 02/16/2018, edited: 01/08/2021