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Clicker Training your Labrador Retriever

Clicker training is a relatively new training program that has recently encountered a lot of popularity, especially with Labrador Retrievers. Clicker training is a reward-based training program, which is ideal for Labradors. This is because the Labrador is always eager to please, and derives great pleasure out of earning rewards from its owner. Labradors are also a very social breed, and the constant interaction provided by clicker training has proven to be very effective.

A decade ago, it was recommended to use both positive and negative reinforcement when training a Labrador Retriever. When a dog did something good, it earned praise. When a dog was naughty, the owner would discipline the dog with yelling or physical punishment. Some people were under the impression that if they did not physically discipline their dog, they would not gain their dog’s respect. With new studies about pet psychology, we now know that is not the case with Labrador Retrievers. There have been many veterinarians that will attest to the positive effects of clicker training with Labradors. Negative reinforcement, while being satisfying for the owner because they are “punishing” their dog for bad behavior, has been shown to often backfire, and create more serious behavioral issues in Labradors.

The concept behind clicker training is to never discipline a dog for bad behavior, but to instead only reward them for good behavior. In essence, this program encourages pure positive reinforcement. For example, if your dog is growling at another dog, you would not discipline them for growling. Instead, give them rewards when they see another dog and do not growl. This reward should be accompanied by an acceptance noise, a “click”. Dogs are very receptive to immediate reactions to their actions, which is why clicker training has proven to be a very effective training method in scientific trials.

To get your dog accustomed to clicker training, you will need a small plastic “frog” clicker, or something similar. Clickers that are specifically designed for clicker dog training are sold at pet supply stores. Once you have a clicker, assemble a small plastic container containing treats for your dog. These treats can be sliced hot dogs, sausage, cheese, or bits of bacon. It’s important to use “special” treats for a clicker training program, at least at first. This will make your training much easier, as the dog will be more willing to obey for tasty treats. The treats used should be in pea-size pieces, since they will be the main reward source for the training. The giving of treats for good behavior is known as the “primary reinforcer” of clicker training, with the clicker being the “secondary reinforcer”. The key to successful clicker training is timing. You need to be very attentive to when your dog completes good behavior, and be prepared to reward them in that event.

The first step of a successful clicker training program is to encourage your Labrador Retriever to associate the click of the clicker with a treat reward. This can be done by clicking, then immediately rewarding the dog with a treat. You should repeat this process several times, and on different occasions. This will help your dog realize that the click is a sound that should be paid attention to, since it signifies a treat reward.

The next step is to begin rewarding your dog for behavior that they are already familiar with. This can be giving you their undivided attention, not barking while in a crate, etc. Your dog will already know that this is positive behavior, and will begin to make the connection that positive behavior is accompanied by a click, as well as a treat. Once your dog begins to realize the connection between these, they will be much more attentive to the clicker.

After your dog begins to connect the clicking noise to positive behavior, it’s time to start using verbal commands. When you start this phase of the process, you must only click and reward your pet following direct obedience of a verbal command, such as “Come”. Timing is extremely important, since the association needs to be firm in your dog’s mind of the connection between positive behavior followed by a subsequent click and treat. If you feel like you’re making progress, you can vary the timing of the click between the giving of the treat. This can help your dog realize that the clicking sound means that there will be a treat reward, but perhaps not immediately. This can also buy you time if you have to dig treats out of your pocket or bag, and are not able to provide them instantaneously.

After your dog is proficient at obeying verbal commands, and associating the clicker with good behavior as well as treats, you can then use the clicking method to correct bad behavioral traits. To many people, the idea of not scolding their dog for bad behavior seems irrational, but many studies have proven that pure positive reinforcement works much better (Especially for Labrador Retrievers). Like many active dogs, Labradors do tend to bark frequently. If this behavior is not caught early, it can become a nuisance. When your dog is barking, it is recommended that you completely ignore them. They must learn that barking does not promote attention, or rewards. After they stop barking for several seconds, then you can click the clicker and give them a treat. This is a very good tactic in reinforcing the idea that “not barking” is good behavior, when repeated on several occasions. Your dog will eventually catch on, and will resist barking for the chance to be rewarded with a treat.

Another negative behavioral trait that can be corrected with clicker training is over-excitement, or jumping. Labrador Retrievers are very energetic and affectionate, and can sometimes overwhelm family members or visitors with constant jumping. Ideally, this behavioral trait should be corrected with clicker training while your dog is still a puppy. When your dog jumps up on your or someone else, ignore them. Don’t look at them or speak to them, and stay still until they are done jumping. Once they have calmed down for about 30 seconds, click your clicker, and reward them with a treat. This process should be repeated several times to be effective.

If your dog does not calm down or stop jumping within a significant period of time, another tactic may be in order. Make your dog obey the “Sit” command, and give them a click with a reward. This should be done in an area where they can see the entrance to the house. After your dog is sitting, have one or several friends enter your house. Your dog may become excited, but it is your job to keep them sitting. If they are able to interact with the visitors without jumping, click your clicker and give them a treat. This process may have to be repeated before your dog begins to associate “not jumping” with a click and a reward.

Again, the reason that clicker training has proven to be so effective is because dogs are readily able to learn by the immediate consequence of their actions. If you reinforce positive behavior and obedience by your dog, your dog is much more likely to repeat that behavior to earn the positive reinforcement. Clicker training is the result of a new concept called “Classical Conditioning”. Classical Conditioning is the concept of reinforcing positive behavior by pairing together two completely unrelated events. With the clicking of the clicker being an audio stimuli, while the treat is a reward-stimuli, the dog is easily able to make a positive connection between the two. The clicker acts as a “marker” for positive behavior, which encourages repetition of desired behavior.

Another training tactic that is used in clicker training is “shaping”. When your dog is going in the right direction, (for example, towards the stick that you are asking them to retrieve) you can use the clicker to encourage your dog to continue. The shaping training tactic is especially effective when trying to train your dog to stay out of certain areas, such as flowerbeds, pools, or the driveway. Using the clicker, click only when your dog is staying away from the undesired area, or navigating around it. Once your dog understands that avoiding this area or object is good behavior, it will be more likely to repeatedly avoid that area in the future.

Though some may still call it controversial, clicker training is a very positive, reward-based program with proven results. Since the training is all about positive reinforcement, it’s much more stress free for the dog owner as well. The importance of building a strong bond with your Labrador Retriever can not be over-emphasized, since it is the key to a positive relationship. Clicker training gives you the ability to teach your dog commands, while still maintaining a happy environment for your pet. It’s a proven effective program, that should be encouraged for all dog owners.

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  1. Good information in your blogpost, I saw a report on the tv last week about this same thing and since I am getting married next month and the timing could not have been better! thanks for the post!, I have bookmarked, thanks Mai Schulenberg