Clicker training - Helping your dog overcome nerves

Helping your dog overcome nerves could be a click away thanks to a combination of obedience and clicker training. Alison Irving achieved that great reward with her dog, Hawkeye.

When I bought my new Border Collie, Hawkeye, I had plenty of plans for him. He was a great little dog, but he developed a huge problem. During the critical fear period, at 11 weeks old, Hawkeye was badly scared by an aggressive dog. I tried to increase his confidence by introducing him to other dogs. Instead, he grew more sensitive and before I knew it, I had a major problem.

Both the Hills District Kennel Club and the Hills Agility Club were extremely supportive during this time. I worked with a behaviourist and ended up taking a dog behaviour course myself. I also continued to train Hawkeye in Obedience, but in the end I had to admit there was a high probability that Hawkeye would always be on edge around other dogs. An apprehensive dog is not a likely winner in the ring, so I needed something that would help to build Hawkeye’s confidence.

The Answer

Dog Obedience is the basis for all other training, and absolutely essential with a problem dog. But I also found building complex skills and clicker training useful.

A clicker is an acoustic device that trainers use to emit an audible click when a dog does what is desired.

The clicker is firstly used in conjunction with conventional rewards (treats, pats or toys), until the dog begins to recognise the click itself as reinforcement. Once the dog recognises the click, it provides immediate feedback that the dog’s action is correct. I discovered I could click faster than I could say ‘yes’, and the clicker could not be misunderstood.

In her book, Reaching the Animal Mind, dog behaviourist Karen Pryor reveals that a conditioned reinforcer like a ‘click’ goes directly through the ‘primitive’ part of the brain, rather than the ‘thinking’ areas of the brain. Therefore, as a very basic summary of her research, the click travels faster.

The great thing about clicking is that it offers training without any punishment. The dog quickly learns that click equals reward and no click equals no reward, so it offers the behaviour that gives the reward while the undesired behaviour becomes extinct.

If you have a dog with a behavioural problem, clicker training is one of many solutions. Of course, your dog doesn’t need to have a problem for this to be a fun activity for you both.

Clicker training 101

The clicker trainer shapes behaviour in stages, gradually moving from rewarding early attempts towards the desired final product. As an example, this is how I taught Hawkeye to skateboard:

  1. Hawkeye sniffed the skateboard, and I clicked the clicker and offered a reward.
  2. Hawkeye touched the skateboard with his nose (click, reward).
  3. Hawkeye touched the skateboard with his paw (click, reward).
  4. Hawkeye put one paw on the skateboard (click, reward).
  5. Hawkeye put both front feet on the skateboard (click, reward).
  6. Hawkeye put both front feet on the skateboard and accidentally moved it (click and high-value reward).
  7. I introduced the command ‘Skate’, and Hawkeye pushed the skateboard increasing distances for clicks and rewards.
  8. I phased out the click and rewarded intermittently.

The whole process took three five-minute sessions per day, over three days. As Hawkeye progressed, each new achievement became the basis for the next stage of training. Once Hawkeye could skate, he no longer received reinforcement for just putting his paws on the board, he had to offer something more.

Want to know more?

For advice on clicker training for your dog, contact your local Obedience Club.