Oliver has lived with us for a couple of days now, and it’s time for him to start learning the rules of the house. He’s had some time to relax, get lots of attention and get what he wants when he wants it. It’s 5am Oliver, you want to go outside? Ok, let me get up and take you. (Actually, the way it really went down was that PL got up to let him out at 5am, while I stole all of the covers and went back to sleep.) He’s very laid back but a little shy, and I think training will make him less nervous when something new happens.
Oliver is very eager to please and already very devoted to us (like any good spaniel) so I think he will learn quickly. If he’s confused he backs away and gets scared, so we’ll have to be extra patient with him. O’Malley always finds a way to be included in everything, so while we’re training Oliver, he will get a much needed refresher course in his manners as well. We went through an 8-week Beginner Dog Obedience class last Spring with O’Malley. We left the class with a graduation certificate that proudly hangs on our refrigerator (and an embarrassing picture of PL holding O’Malley with a graduation cap on his head).
I also left the class with my own philosophy of dog training:
1. Your dog’s bad behavior is your fault and not theirs.
2. Dogs are happier when they are trained (it goes without saying that their people are happier too). Shy dogs gain confidence, and hyper dogs gain purpose and direction.
3. Dog training is more about dedication and practice than about being an expert.
4. Dogs learn quickly, but consistency takes a lot longer.
That’s not really groundbreaking stuff, but O’Malley made big improvements and became easier to live with after dog class, so I’m going to pretend I’m an expert now. Both dogs were magically house trained, so I’m taking credit for that too. Since PL the law student knows all about dog bite court cases and liability now (I finally learned what a Tort is), this is the part where I say I’m not a professional and I’m just sharing my experiences, not offering counsel.
Here is what O’Malley knows how to do after beginner dog class: sit, down, stay, release, spin and give high fives. He’s consistent with these things most of the time, but needs to practice doing them anytime, everywhere, for anyone, even with distractions. He’s ok at coming when called, but needs to learn to do it even when what he’s doing is fun (like playing in the litter box or running down the street to poop in the neighbors yard when he escapes from the house). Lately he’s become worse about putting his paws on the counter and searching for food (he’s a carb-a-holic) so we’ll be working on that too. The fact that he does this is our fault since there have been times where he jumped up and found things there, thus rewarding his behavior with yummy carbs. We left the house for a quick bike ride last week and came home to find a freshly baked loaf of bread resting in the grass. We dusted it off and put it in a clean bag and ate it anyway. (Disclaimer: he never opened the bag, just licked the outside, and anything we serve to guests is guaranteed 100% slobber free, not that we would tell you if it wasn’t). Needless to say, they really let anyone graduate from dog class.
Yesterday I started the first part of Oliver’s training by doing something called “loading the clicker.” We were taught the clicker method of dog training in our class and the sound of the clicker is used to mark and reinforce good behavior. I admit that I always thought a clicker for dogs was stupid, but I learned that you just use it for teaching something new and it’s not like a dog remote control at all (you don’t have to carry it around all the time and look like an idiot clicking it to make your dog behave). Once a behavior is learned, you do not need the clicker and the treat to reward the behavior. Often the behavior is reinforced by a real life reward. For example, O’Malley is trained to sit at the gate and stay (even once the gate is opened) until we say release. When he does this, his reward is getting going out of the fence to take a walk.
The basic methodology of clicker training is that when the dog does a certain behavior, they hear the click and associate what they just did with something that earns a reward (usually a treat but also attention or play). You can think of the clicker like a camera, and the click is a snapshot of the behavior you want at the moment it happens. The sound it makes (a two-toned popping noise) is the same pitch every time, unlike your voice which can say the same word in different ways giving it different meanings to the dog. Over time, the dog learns what the behavior is, attaches a command to it, and learns to do it on cue.
Before you do any training with a clicker though, you have to teach the dog to associate the sound of the clicker with a reward–this is called loading the clicker. It takes 2-3 days of practice in a few short (5 minutes or so) sessions each day. In fact, all training is most effective in sessions of about 5 minutes repeated a few times a day rather that in one longer block of time. Loading the clicker is a great game for your dog because they don’t have to do anything at all and they still get lots of treats. You begin with a handful of very small treats, or larger ones broken up into small pieces. You click and then give them a treat. Over and over. To test that they know it after a couple of days, simply make a click when they aren’t looking at you, and if it gets their attention and they expect a treat, you are done with loading the clicker.