Retriever Clicker Training

    Imagine, if you can, a dog that sits when he is told to sit, comes when he is told to come, and doesn’t bark unless told to speak. Imagine training a dog without anger, frustration or punishment. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is with clicker training (CT). The idea behind CT is to use good things, such as food treats, to guide your Retriever so that he does what you want him to do. Psychologists call this Operant Conditioning using Positive Reinforcement. You will call it brilliant.

    Use CT to train the Retriever; and then, as you add verbal commands or hand signals, you can discontinue using the clicker every time. To begin, the only items needed are a clicker, similar to a child’s toy, and some treats.

    The reason for using a clicker instead of your voice is that a clicker is a unique sound that we can create faster than we can get out the words “Good girl.” This is important because you must click at the EXACT MOMENT the action takes place; not after, not before, but during. One way to practice your timing is to use the pause button on the VCR or DVD player stopping it at the exact frame you want.

    For treats, use something small. The treat must be little so it can go down quickly without chewing. Training is all about timing. You want something that will not break the rhythm of the training and let the dog become distracted. Single Cheerios work for some dogs. Other treats that work include hot dogs, leftover chicken, chopped liver. All of these treats should be fully cooked and chopped into pea-sized morsels. The size of the Retriever will effect the amount of treat it is offered. Eventually you can get rid of the food and use other reinforcers such as a toy or a pat and praise.

    Lessons should ideally only last five minutes at a time. If you can work in two to four sessions a day, you can have your Retriever trained in no time.

    Start the training with no distractions, away from other pets and children. You may need to start with just a click once and then a giving the dog a treat. Always use a single click, no matter how tempting it is to do multiple clicks for a big breakthrough. About the fourth click, the dog will be looking at the clicker, not the treats. Once that happens, she is ready for training in specific skills.

    ALWAYS click first, then treat.

    Now, after your Retriever knows the clicker means something good, start to train him. There are a few different ways to do this. There is the Capture Method where you click when you catch the dog doing something right, such as sitting; the Shaping Method where you reward each small step toward the goal; and the Magnet Method where you lure the dog into the behavior.

    Start training for the desired action, then name it afterwards. For example, get the dog to sit, then after he is regularly doing this, start saying “Sit” as he starts the action. Soon you can simply say “Sit” and your Retriever will obey.

    If you get mad, or frustrated, then stop the session. If the dog makes a mistake, don’t get mad. There is no punishment other than ignoring behavior you don’t want. Try to always end on a good note or a success. Vary the difficulty of the training up and then down again. Don’t continually make the tasks harder as this frustrates the dog. Go back to some simpler actions on occasion and let your Retriever enjoy what he has learned.

    Don’t use the clicker for the “come” command. Teach the dog to come to you with a verbal command.

    If the clicker scares the dog, muffle it in your pocket or behind your back. Other options are to use a ballpoint pen or small stapler.

    One way to stop unwanted behavior (such as barking or fence jumping) is to train a Retriever to do it on command, then only treat for it when the command is given. Many times the dog will stop doing the behavior unless given the command. If you are yelling at the dog to stop barking you are actually reinforcing the barking because he thinks you are barking with him.

    ADDITIONAL Retriever TRAINING RESOURCES  Clickers are available for $1.79 each or 3 for $5.00.

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