News from the training trenches

Karen Pryor I-Click dog training clickers

It’s taken more than a year, but we are now officially a clicker-happy household!

If you’ve been following the blog you may remember that Sasha panicked at the sound of just about any loud or unusual noise. Clickers, in particular, left her cowering in fear, which presented more than a few challenges during obedience class..

When even the quietest clickers (like Karen Pryor’s I-Click clickers pictured here) set her off, I stashed the clicker deep in a drawer and worked on reconditioning her reaction to noise. It took a while, but we’ve made good progress. During obedience class we worked with verbal clicks and she learned to ignore the repetitive clicking by other people. She’s much calmer at home, too; these days she hears the coffee grinder and she jumps into training mode, anxious to earn her special TREAT.  (That success is recounted here.)

In the past few months I’ve been coaxing Sasha though a variety of challenges, and one of them is reacting calmly to the clicker while we’re out walking. I sweetened the deal, of course, with tasty soft treats (the tiny one-calorie kind I can break in half). I use the clicker when cars approach; as soon as she focuses on me instead of the car, I click, praise, and deliver a tasty treat. While she still occasionally barks at a passing vehicle, she no longer lunges toward the street.

Every now and then, she outsmarts me. This morning she sat quietly as a car passed by, accepted her treat, and then she barked! We’ll definitely be working on that behavior.

Our most significant challenge is still very much a work in progress, and that’s walking calmly past another dog. It hasn’t helped that we’ve been rushed a few times by unleashed dogs, which has resulted in renewed hyper-vigilance when another dog–even when leashed and seemingly oblivious to us–enters her line of vision. Once she sees another dog, it’s a struggle to get her moving again and focusing on me. We’ve had sporadic success, but we’re a long way from a reliable reaction.

On the good-news side, her bark tone and body language–head up, ears forward, tail wagging furiously, and no hackles in sight–tells me her reaction excited rather than fearful. Once she’s quiet again and moving where I lead, I click, praise, and treat. Clearly, though, I need a tastier motivator. I’ve ordered ZiwiPeak Good-Dog Venison Jerky dog treats, which come highly recommended for training. Stay tuned for a progress report once those arrive!

Helping Sasha feel comfortable, confident, and safe in any environment is an ongoing effort, and some days we seem to lose more ground than we gain. Still, I’ll celebrate every success along the way, no matter how small or trivial it might be. And we’ll keep our eyes on the goal!

All in a day’s fun

Strong winds pushed us to and fro this morning, making our daily walk more of an endurance test than an enjoyable stroll. We soon retreated to the relative shelter of the back yard where Buddy the Cat joined us for play time. (Note to self: buy a video camera to capture the antics of these two!)

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With storms on the horizon we headed inside for training time. Buddy joins us for every session and expects his share of treats, which of course he gets. After a quick review of the basics, we moved on to practice what we learned in our second Intermediate session. One thing we’re working on is the auto-sit, which Sasha seems to do naturally. (Have I mentioned how smart this dog is?)

We’re also working on the straight sit, something Sasha manages often but not always. The trainer showed us the skip-sit exercise, which involves holding the leash in your right hand and treats in the left, then stepping off with your right foot first and drawing your left foot up in alignment as you stop. By holding the treat at your left side, your dog should line up straight in the heel position. Moving your hand a bit left or right seems to help guide the dog into the desired straight position. We’d be making more progress here if I would remember to step off with my right foot as instructed. My challenge: that contradicts 20+ years of “left foot first” military training!

Fortunately, both of us were much more successful learning the place command. If this is a new one for you, too, here’s a video you might find helpful:

During our training sessions I use Blue Buffalo’s Blue Bits treats because they’re soft, moist, and I can easily break them into tiny bits. She’s partial to the salmon but likes the chicken, turkey, and beef treats, too, so I buy a combo pack. Sasha loves Fromm’s salmon-with-sweet-potato treats at the end of a workout; they’re crunchy and big enough to convince her it’s a well-earned reward.

Between six sessions of Basic Obedience, the Intermediate class (four sessions to go), and daily workouts, we go through a lot of treats! Since Sasha doesn’t share my preference for vegetarian fare and prefers the savory meat-flavored treats, our trainer suggested using hot dogs. I’m willing to give it a try if I can find a low-fat, low-calorie hot dog that’s not chock-full of icky artificial stuff. (Is there such a thing?) If making your own hot dog treats sounds like something you want to try, head for the kichen and your oven of choice.

Microwave: Start by cutting your hot dogs into small bits. For a dog of Sasha’s size, that might be the size of a nickel cut in half or even smaller. Line a paper plate with paper towels before spreading out the bits. Some folks prefer to cover the bits with another layer of paper towels to help absorb moisture and minimize any mess.

Cook times will vary depending on the amount of hot dog pieces and your microwave’s size/power settings; I’ve heard everything from 2 to 10 minutes. Cook until you reach desired crispness. (Sounds like careful monitoring is essential here!) Once prepared, these treats can be stored in an airtight container on the counter, refrigerated, or frozen.

Traditional oven: Some folks prefer to bake their treats. If that sounds appealing to you, here’s a video showing you the steps. Note you’ll still need to monitor the time to achieve the desired crispness!

Do you have a favorite homemade dog treat? Share in the comments!

Repeat after me…

There’s more than one way to teach your dog to sit, but saying “Sit sit sit sit sit sit sit sit sit sit SIT SIT SIT…” isn’t one of them, as one owner discovered during a recent training session. The pup did eventually sit, but I suspect that was most likely due to exhaustion from jumping up and down while attempting to grab the tasty treat being waved about.

From what I’ve learned, repeating commands (or cues, if you prefer that term) over and over until the dog complies doesn’t seem to accomplish much, and just might send your dog the message that stalling is acceptable.  If you need help teaching your pup to sit, try this strategy:

Sasha has mastered the sit as well as the trickier sit-stay, both indoors and out.  (That’s handy come feeding time and when we chat with neighbors.) And since the AKC Canine Good Citizen certification is our goal, this is one of our “must know” commands. Here’s a clip for test item #2 (sitting politely for petting):

She’s nailed the come command (CGC test item #7) in the house, too, and  knows to sit right in front of me when called. Still on our list: obeying the come command outside.  She’s mastered it in the backyard and recognizes the recall command when on the long line in the park, but we’re not 100% reliable yet.  She’ll head straight to me when called from a distance of 20-30 feet, but still gets distracted by squirrels, birds, children, passing vehicles, the bull in the field across the lane…well, you get the point.

If you’re working on teaching your dog to come when called (or recall, as it’s sometimes called), here’s a short clip that can help:

And if your dog needs a bit more incentive, here’s an AKC post with suggestions for using fun games to teach or reinforce the recall command.

Have other suggestions or links to teach these commands? Please share!