A REWARDING EXPERIENCETHE 'CLICKER' IS AN EASY TOOL WITH POWERFUL TRAINING RESULTS
By Gina Spadafori
In the last year, it seems like I've been doing nothing but raising puppies. First came Ned, a Shetland sheepdog who's bright but a little on the shy side. Then Riley, an outgoing, bouncy retriever puppy I'm raising for friends.
While most of what I do with puppies involves socializing them to new people and places, sights and sounds, I also lay a foundation for a lifetime of learning by setting limits and by teaching a few basic behaviors in a way that makes it clear that training is fun. To get that latter idea across, the tool I reach for is what trainers call a "clicker." It doesn't look like much, but it's an object that seems to possess a magic power when it comes to building a good relationship with an animal -- any animal.
To the untrained eye, a clicker is a small plastic box that fits in the palm of your hand -- a child's toy that's also called a "cricket." To make the noise, you press down on the metal strip inside the housing and quickly release it -- click-click!
Of course, the clicker itself isn't magic. What it provides is timing -- it allows a trainer working with a dog who understands the game to let the pet know that the behavior he's doing right now is the one that's being rewarded. And that means the behavior will be repeated. The clicking noise becomes a reward because in the early stages of training, the sound is linked to the delivery of something a dog wants -- most usually, a tiny treat.
You start by teaching your pet that a click means a treat. Pick a time when your pet isn't sleeping (not just after a meal) and is a little hungry (a couple of hours before a meal). Choose a relatively small, quiet place you can work without too many distractions, and prepare a pouch or bowl of tiny, yummy treats (diced hot dogs are popular, as are pieces of cheese or even bits of kibble). For the next few minutes, click and treat. One click, one treat. Again and again and again. Eventually, your pet will show you he understands that the sound means food. For example, he may look immediately to the source of the treats after hearing the click.
When that happens, you're on to the next stage. But wait until your next session, because clicker training works best with a couple of short sessions -- less than 10 minutes -- every day.
When you're all set up again, sit quietly with your clicker and treats -- and wait. Your dog should start volunteering behaviors, everything from sitting to pawing to wandering in a circle. When your pet chooses one you like, click, treat and wait again. Your dog will initially be confused, but should eventually offer the behavior again. Be patient! When that moment comes, click, treat and wait again.
Say you clicked your dog a couple of times because he finally got bored and sat. Soon your dog will sit to test his theory that sitting means a click-treat. When that happens, click and "jackpot" him with a handful of treats. When the pattern is firmly established, you can then give it a name ("sit") and make the food reward more random to strengthen it (this is the same principal that keeps you pulling the slot machine handle).
In future sessions, you'll move on from the "sit" that your dog knows, waiting for more behaviors to click, treat and name as you build your pet's repertoire of commands. More complicated behaviors are trained by "chaining" -- training in segments and putting them together.
One more thing: Never punish your pet for not "getting it right." Clicker training is all about the payoff, and once you get it mastered, there's no end to the things you can teach your dog to do. And that's true no matter if your puppy is big or small, outgoing or shy. In my house, both Ned and Riley, although very different puppies, are thriving as they learn that training is fun.
Treats, trickery key
to pilling your pet
Q: I don't want to be a bad pet owner, but I just can't get pills down my dog. What can I do? -- via Facebook
A: I know you know that any medication prescribed for your pet will be of no use if it doesn't get into your pet as prescribed. But you are certainly not alone with this problem. Let me recommend some strategies to make the pill-popping easier:
-- Pop and treat. Have your veterinarian demonstrate. Always start with a positive attitude and end with a treat and praise. You can find "pill guns" through pet retailers that help with getting the pill quickly in the right place.
-- Stealth. Perhaps the most popular method is to hide the pill in something pets love, although many pets may figure this out soon enough and start eating around the pill. Try treats that are designed for pill-popping, such as Pill Pockets: They're yummy little bits with pockets for hiding the treats.
-- Presto-chango. For pets who just won't tolerate pills (or people who just hate giving them), ask your veterinarian about using a compounding pharmacy. These businesses take all manner of medications and turn them into edible treats in pet-friendly flavors.
-- New technologies. Ask your veterinarian for the latest options. The medication you're using may be available in an easier-to-use format, such as transdermal.
No matter what, always give pet medications exactly as prescribed to the end of the supply. If you have questions or problems, or if the condition hasn't improved after the medications are gone, you must call your veterinarian for advice on the health of your pet.
If you need help, ask! Your veterinarian wants your pet to get better just as much as you do. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
Maddie's free adoptions
find homes for thousands
-- The Maddie's Pet Adoption Days placed 8,000 pets in five states over the first weekend in June. It was the first national effort to expand focused adoption efforts around the idea of waiving adoption fees for homes that otherwise met adoption criteria. Maddie's Fund, the California foundation founded by the family of software mogul Dave Duffield, put up $4 million to offset the costs of the event to participating shelters and rescue groups. The group had aimed to place 5,000 pets.
-- Obesity is as prevalent among North American pets as it is among their owners, and with many of the same health complications. Until cats can open the cupboard or work the can opener on their own, though, they can't be blamed for their size. But who can be? In Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, a woman faces animal cruelty charges after her 24-pound cat had to be euthanized for health problems related to his size after he was brought to the Ottawa Humane Society. The woman faces up to 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
-- Tigers get hairballs, too. A 400-pound tiger in Florida who'd stopped eating at the wildlife refuge center where he lives was treated surgically to remove a 4-pound hairball. Veterinarians at BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Clearwater found the mass after inserting an endoscope into the sedated cat. The tiger, who is named Ty, is recovering well. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Gina Spadafori
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and also the authors of many best-selling pet care books. Dr. Becker can also be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.
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