So just to recap: I have the most beautiful puppy in the world, he has no play drive, he shows no interest in tug or fetch, he screams relentlessly when put in the crate and he jumps up at people for attention. He is greedy.
Clearly, clicker training is the best way forward for the Golden Wonder. He very quickly learnt that the sound of the click guaranteed him a piece of food.
I have my own theory that with the application of two simple rules you can train any dog to do anything of which it is capable. My two rules of dog training are;
1. Make it easy for the dog to get it right (whatever ‘it’ might be – it could be a simple sit, a recall, a sendaway or a speak, etc.).
2. Provide sufficient reward (‘sufficient’ varies not only from dog to dog, but complexity of task and more distracting environments as well as the dog’s changing needs at any given time).
So with my greedy puppy and my clicker I set about training. First I decided to teach him to press a lever to make the clicker work. "What" I hear you say, "does she think he is a lab rat?"
Okay, what I mean is I want the puppy to learn that if he touches my hand with his nose the clicker will sound, thus guaranteeing him a food reward. My hand is like a lever for the dog to operate the clicker.
So to make it easy for him to get it right I pull my hand out of my pocket (The Golden Wonder thinks there could be a tasty treat in my pocket) with my thumb across the palm of my hand obscuring whether or not there is a treat concealed within and as The Golden Wonder sniffs to check for food I press the clicker which is ready in my other hand. ‘Wow’ he bounces off expecting a treat now so I complete my part of the contract and feed him.
Food quickly swallowed we are ready to repeat the operation. Food quickly swallowed we are ready to repeat the operation. Food quickly swallowed we are ready to repeat the operation. – You get the idea.
When I was a child we had a record - an ‘EP’. Does anyone remember those? A vinyl extended play I think it stood for as opposed to a single or the LP full length albums. Anyway this particular EP told the story of Davey Crockett ‘king of the wild frontier’ I can hear the songs now. At one point in the story, I remember as the tension rose and Davey and his gang were fighting for their lives the urgent cry came up, "We’re surrounded men!" "We’re surrounded men!" "We’re surrounded men!"
At that point the record stuck and the cry was repeated ad infinitum until one of us got up and knocked the record player. I never knew how many times it was meant to be said but as it was such an exciting part of the tale it caught us out every time.
I digress: back to levers.
Soon the penny drops and the puppy realises that every time he touches my hand with his nose I click and he is rewarded. At this stage he begins to touch my hand to make me click. He is pressing the lever!
Stage two complete.
My beautiful Golden Wonder has learnt something! Okay it is not really an exercise and he has not really learnt it yet. This process will have to be repeated many times and in several different places before it is firmly implanted in his little pea brain, but it is a start. We are communicating.
Over the following days this exercise is developed. The thumb no longer needs to be over the palm. The pup can see there is no food in that hand – he now understands it is a lever to be pressed. Every time he touches the offered hand I click and then reward him. It is worth mentioning at this point I said ‘offered hand’ my rule is that to be a lever my hand must now be open on display, so if the puppy comes up and touches the back of my hand when I am watching TV that does not count. Nor does poking or nibbling of the hand ever warrant a click. The clicker is very powerful and you must take care to only click desirable behaviours, not those that could develop into a nuisance.
For the clicker to remain strong (effective) you need to reward the dog every single time you press the clicker – here comes the tough part –even if you clicked at the wrong time!
As my Golden Wonder becomes more confident with the hand touching I gradually make it more challenging for him. With a small pot of food and my clicker in my right hand I show the puppy the pot but keep it just out of his reach. I allow him to try and get the food (the skill here lies in not allowing him to mug you and grab the food) I just let him keep jumping until he tired and looked at me wondering how to get it. At that point I direct my gaze towards the lever - my left hand. Exaggerating my gaze turning my whole head and shoulders to make the hand gaze obvious. Just like a light bulb coming on he remembers the earlier sessions and touches my hand. I instantly click and reward him from the pot. Very quickly now he learns that to get the food from the pot he has to move away from the pot and touch the other hand to get the click that releases the food.
He is a genius! He has got it! He has got it! – oh don’t start that again!
As Lao Tzu the Chinese Taoist Philosopher said, "A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step."
Well now m Golden Wonder has taken the first step of a very long journey. A journey which I hope will one day take him into the wonderful world of working trials.