I began clicking with our Chihuahua puppy Roo a couple of days ago. Today was our third session. Previously we introduced the clicker, and then worked on eye contact. Today we began with “sit”. Which made me think… perhaps a quick post or two on the basics might be useful.
I believe very strongly in free shaping. What this refers to is one of many processes by which you can introduce a cue or designate a behavior as desired. Free shaping is allowing the dog to offer actions or responses to the situation then labeling certain actions as positive. It is 100% hands off, and allows you and your dog to problem solve together. It’s really a wonderful, wonderful way to build confidence and trust in one another.
In teaching “sit”, we are giving a label to a behavior the dog already performs naturally. To free shape a sit, we are going to sit back with our clicker and treats, and watch. Eventually your dog is going to sit down. Likely when they get bored of trying to get your attention. Some dogs will wander around for some time, others will sit fairly quickly – be patient.
As soon as your dog sits down, click and offer them a treat. Repeat.
Initially your dog will have to get up out of the sit to come and get the treat from you. Soon enough though, you’ll find him sitting right in front of you immediately after taking the previous treat. To get your dog out of the sit position, so you can get him to repeat it (instead of maintaining it) toss the treat a couple of feet away. Make sure he sees you do so, so that he can find it quickly.
Roo began offering the sit quickly after only a few repetitions, but many dogs will take longer. Don’t fret. Some pick up on certain behaviors quickly and others more slowly – this is not an indication of their intelligence or your ability as a trainer. Just keep at it, and you’ll both have it down pat soon enough.
When you are about 90% certain your dog will perform the desired behavior, add the cue (in this case, “sit”). Say it right before that bum hits the floor. Then click and treat as earlier. After a few repeats your dog will begin associating this word with the behavior.
Throughout your training sessions do your best to refrain from talking to your dog. Let the clicker be your voice, communicating your pleasure with his behavior. It’s faster and more efficient than we could be without it. Save your verbal praise, pets, pats, and cuddles for after the session. Also, keep your rate of reinforcement high. The more often and quicker you are able to reward your dog, the better. If you aren’t clicking soon enough when first introducing a behavior your dog may get frustrated and give up.
Today, Roo and I only worked for about four minutes (after the first time she offered the sit). She’s a high energy six month old puppy with a limited attention span… it’s far better to stop before she begins to wander. We were able to introduce the cue in this time frame, and had about ten repetitions afterwards. If we were to work in another room next time, I would not expect her to know what the cue meant – despite excellent performance today. A different room, different distractions, all communicate different things to your dog. So next time, we’ll work somewhere else, or we’ll work with me standing rather than sitting. By slowly changing the environment, yet requiring the same behavior she will eventually understand that “sit” means sit – regardless of where we are or what we’re doing.
So keep at it, and have fun. Free shaping is a great way to train with your dog – and you’ll likely learn as much as they do in the process.