My niece recently got a new dog. He's a wonderful looking mutt that is mostly Lab and who knows what else. On the one hand he's a great fit - he's happy, non-aggressive, and great with her two little kids. On the other hand, he's a nightmare - she's got two little kids and a rambunctious puppy! That's a recipe for insanity, unless he gets trained very soon.
I've trained a few dogs in my time, and she asked me for some advice. The biggest challenge she faces is that he's young and excitable. He chews the kids' toys, barks at visitors and jumps up on people. He's going to grow into a big dog, so if he doesn't learn to behave he'll become a problem, and problem dogs are the ones most likely to end up euthanized. The goal, therefore, is to teach him enough manners that he'll be easy to live with.
There are different approaches to dog training. I think that the best approach makes use of positive reinforcement, almost to the exclusion of anything else. I think it's also very important to have a philosophy of training. That way you can refer to your philosophy when you encounter a new training challenge. My philosophy is that dogs learn best by conditioning, that the trainer is responsible for the dog's behaviour, that mistakes are inevitable and welcome, and that you should not expect the dog to do something just because you think he should. If you can accept those values then I've got three simple steps that you can use to successfully clicker train any dog in a very short time.
You will need two things: a clicker and a supply of tasty dog treats. You can get the clicker from many pet stores, online, or from a dollar store. If you can't get a real training clicker you can use a child's toy, but the real ones are better. You can use just about anything for treats. Make them small (you don't want to fill the dog up too quickly) and tasty enough for the dog to want them. Most dogs will work for any sort of dog biscuit, but if you have a finicky dog you can use small pieces of cheese or make your own liver treats. When I say "small" I mean small - if I'm using cheese or liver treats I make them, at most, 1/4" square. I want the dog to inhale the treats and still want more. This is particularly important with small dogs.
Step one is to teach the dog what the clicker is all about. Get about 30 treats, and divide them into piles of ten. Get the clicker and ten treats and get the dog's attention. Get him right in front of you and make sure he knows you've got the treats. Click the clicker once and shove a treat right into the dog's face. That will get the dog's attention. Click a second time and, again, shove the treat right into his face. Repeat this process until all ten treats are gone, and then praise the dog loudly and repeatedly. Pat, scratch and play with him. Make it fun, and then take a break.
Taking the break is very important. Do not overwhelm the dog with new information. He's a dog, not Einstein. Give him some time to think about the experience. After a few minutes get his attention again and repeat the process with ten more treats. Don't ask for any specific behaviour. Just click and feed the dog. When you've gone through the second set of ten praise and play, and then give the dog a break. Go back and repeat with the last set of treats.
The dog will now associate the click with a treat. In less than ten minutes of training you will have conditioned the dog in exactly the same way that Pavlov conditioned dogs to salivate to the sound of a bell. The dog won't understand the point of the clicker yet, but he will associate it with good things (treats, praise and play). He'll like his new training tool, even though he won't understand that it is a training tool, or even that he's being trained. You have successfully completed Step One.
Step Two requires less work on the dog's part and more work on your part. You'll need patience, and you'll need to work on your timing. There is a saying in dog training: "Sit happens". What this means is that dogs naturally sit from time to time. Get your clicker, your treats and your dog. Find an area where nothing will disturb you or distract the dog. In fact, the perfect place is one where the dog might get bored. Click the clicker once and watch the dog. If he notices and looks at you then he's clearly learned what the clicker means. Praise him and give him a treat. Now wait.
Initially the dog will expect another click and another treat. That's exactly what you want. Don't click or give him a treat yet. Let him get bored. Watch him carefully, with your finger on the clicker. As soon as he sits click and treat. Click first, treat second. Don't tell him to sit. Don't lure him into a sit. Just wait until it happens (remember, sit happens). Once he's done it once and been clicked and treated just wait. Let the dog figure it out. He will sit again. When he does, click and treat. Feel free to praise as well. You can say "Good dog" or even "Good sit", but do not say it before it happens. Say it after, once the dog has performed the action.
Click trainers call this "capturing a behaviour", and the sit is the easiest behaviour to capture. Later you will be able to capture other behaviours, and then shape them into funny (or stupid) pet tricks. For now, however, just capture the sit. The dog will learn that if he sits the clicker clicks and a treat appears. He'll start sitting more often, and probably start thinking that he's controlling delivery of the treats by sitting. That's one of the goals. Dogs do what they want to do. A smart dog trainer gets a dog to want to do what the trainer wants. If the dog thinks he's the boss while he's doing exactly what the trainer wants? Mission accomplished.
Capturing the sit will also teach you about your training. You will make mistakes. You will click too late, or too early, or you will treat the dog without clicking. None of those mistakes are serious. Use ten treats, take a break, and then repeat. Work on your timing. It won't take long. Soon, the dog will sit as soon as you look at him with a clicker and treat in your hand. Trainers call this "offering" a behaviour (in this case a sit).
When you are confident that the dog understands that sitting gets him a click and a treat you can start saying the command "sit" just before he sits, or while he's doing it. The time required before you start this varies from dog to dog and trainer to trainer. If you can accurately predict that the dog is about to sit then you can go ahead and start issuing the command. If you say the command and the dog does nothing then you're moving to fast. Slow down. The dog isn't ready, and more important, your timing and ability to predict what your dog is about to do is not developed enough yet. Go through ten treats and take a break. Be patient! Don't rush things. You are building a lifelong foundation. Do it right.
When you are able to predict the dog will sit, and are able to get the command out before the dog sits, you're 90% finished with this step. All you need to do now is to put the behaviour on the command. In the next training session get your clicker and treats and get ready to take a big step: tell the dog to sit before he's even starting to. If he responds properly and sits, click and treat, but throw in something new: a jackpot! Give him all the treats at once, and praise and play with him. Start over and cement the command, the behaviour, the click and the treat, all in the proper order. Step Two is complete, and you now have a dog that will sit on command.
Step Three will be easy once you've mastered the sit. You're going to teach the dog to come. A dog that will sit and come on command is half-way civilized, and generally easy to live with. The way you'll teach the come is very similar to the sit. Get the clicker and ten treats. Let the dog know that you have the tools and that the game is about to start. If he sits you can either click and treat or not. It doesn't hurt to do either thing, and in fact, a bit of randomness is a good training aid. Look at the dog, call him and if you need to either back up or crouch down. This often motivates dogs to come to you. If he comes to you, click, treat and praise.
The difference between sit and come is that with sit you will try very hard to simply capture the dog's natural behaviour. The lesson is more for you than for the dog. With come you can capture a natural behaviour, but if the dog does not come right away you can introduce luring. Luring is when you manipulate the dog's behaviour into what you want. You have to experiment with luring, and not get too dependent on it, but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with luring.
In Step Three the dog will learn to come when you call, but you will learn more about timing, and more about capturing and luring. These skills will give you a foundation for further training. Meanwhile, the dog will learn that the click means that he's done something right, and that payment is coming in the form of a treat. This is something different from the beginning, where all he knew was that the click was non-threatening and came simultaneously with a treat. He will start to increasingly offer behaviours to you to see if he can make you click and treat. Once he starts doing this you will find it easy to train other behaviours.
A lot of people may criticise your training method, and some positive trainers may criticise your technique. Remember this: if it works, it works. It's that simple. These three steps are a simple introduction to click training. If you like it you can investigate it more and refine your technique and understanding. You can even attend clinics with professional click trainers. Don't lose sight of the main goal, though: a well-behaved dog that is easy and fun to live with. Follow these three steps and you'll be well on your way.