Monday, January 24, 2011

The tools of the trade

So, no discussion of dog training would be complete without going over the basic tools. I've tried to cover all tools below, though some I recommend more than others.

The clicker

This is the best of the best in dog training. It is a tiny, inexpensive plastic case with a metal tongue inside. You press it. It clicks. Pretty simple.

Clicker training is when you classically condition your dog to associate the sound of the click with an incoming treat (like Pavlov's bell). So when the dog hear's the click it knows a treat is incoming. You use the sound of the click to mark the INSTANT your dog does something you agree with. It's faster and more consistent than your voice can ever be, and it taps into the dog's subconscious and speeds learning.

Karen Pryor was instrumental in the development and proliferation of clicker training. Here is what she says about why clicker training is so effective: (Source)
Why is clicker training effective?
When an animal intentionally performs a behavior in order to bring about a desired consequence, as clicker trained animals do, they are learning in a way that researchers call “operant conditioning.”

Animals (and people) may also associate an action, event, place, person, or object with a consequence, whether pleasant or unpleasant. The more a certain event or environment is paired with a particular consequence, the stronger the association. This type of learning is called “classical conditioning” and represents reflexive or automatic behavior, rather than intentional behavior.

While clicker training initially employs classical conditioning, it quickly becomes operant conditioning as soon as the animal intentionally repeats an action in order to earn a reward. Training through operant conditioning results in purposeful behavior, while training through classical conditioning results in habitual behavior.

The difference between an animal that behaves with purpose, rather than by habit, is vast. Clicker trained or operantly conditioned animals try to learn new behaviors. They remember behaviors even years later because they were aware of them as they learned them, rather than acquiring them without awareness. They develop confidence because they have control over the consequences of their actions. They are enthusiastic because they expect those consequences to be pleasurable.

Why is a clicker used?
The essential difference between clicker training and other reward-based training is that the animal is told exactly which behavior earned it a reward. This information is communicated with a distinct and unique sound, a click, which occurs at the same time as the desired behavior. The reward follows.

Without hearing a click during an action, an animal may not connect the reward with that action. Or, the animal may associate the reward with another, unwanted action. With the click, a trainer can precisely “mark” behavior so that the animal knows exactly what it was doing. That’s why clicker trainers call the click an “event marker.” The click also bridges or connects the behavior and its reward, and so is also called a “bridging signal.”

Why use the click? Why not just a word?
A click is more powerful for training than a spoken word because it is not a sound heard by the animal in other circumstances. It means one thing only: a reward is coming because of what you did when you heard the click. It can be produced instantly and at the exact moment a behavior occurs. Even a very quick and subtle behavior, the twitch of an ear for example, can be clicked.

Unlike our voices, which can say the same word in different ways, and so express different emotions or meanings each time, the click sounds the same every time it is heard; its meaning never varies. Humans are highly verbal creatures, but our pets are not. It can be difficult for them to pick out a single word from the stream of meaningless words they hear us speak every day. The click’s meaning, however, is always clear. It is always directed at the animal, and it is always good news.

The clarity with which a click enables trainers to communicate with their animals has a profound effect on their relationships. Their level of interaction increases, and trainer and animal become more interesting and fun for each other.
Here's one of my videos of an example of what you can achieve with clicker training. You should be able to make out the sounds of the click over the music, and you can see me holding a clicker in most frames.

To start out, you want to "charge" the clicker. This means that you're going to spend some time going click/treat click/treat, giving your dog a treat immediately after you click. (The unconditioned stimulus becomes the conditioned stimulus.) You'll want to do this ~20 times in a row at first, maybe 4-5 times a day so you build up this association between the click and food in your dog's mind.

The biggest thing to remember is that you will always be pairing a click with a reward for the rest of your dog's life. If the click becomes unassociated with the reward then it becomes white noise to your dog, and it will hold no meaning.

These are some good sites for those of you getting started with the clicker: Clicker Solutions . com, Clicker Training . com

The treats

The best training treats are small and soft so they're easy to handle and your dog can eat them quickly. Some people use liver treats, steak, unspiced lunch meats, cheerios, carrots or whatever your dog really likes. Experiment with a bunch of different things, and keep track of favourites. Pull the favourites out when you're working on new or important behaviours.

My dog works for kibble, which is great. If I'm training her I'll skip her breakfast and give it to her over the course of the training session. If your dog eats 100 kibble pieces in a meal, that's 100 training opportunities. (Some dogs are less than enthralled with kibble -- it depends on the dog.)

The leash (standard, training, tabs, flexi)

The standard leash

Leashes come in a bajillion different colours and materials. The leashes best for training are about 4-6 feet in length, sturdy, easy for you to grab, leather or nylon.

Training leash

A lot of the time when it's recommended you have a training leash
it means a long, lightweight leash to allow your dog more freedom outside. You can either hold it, or let your dog drag it. These are normally nylon.

Leash tab

Leash tabs are short little handles you can attach to your dog's collar. I didn't find a lot of use for these until I started taking agility classes. Now I love them. My dog is off leash while navigating the obstacles, but when I need to hold her still it's just a little
more convenient than grabbing her collar.

Flexi lead

Flexi leads are retractable long leashes on a spring mechanism.
These are NOT RECOMMENDED for the following reasons:
- The dog gets used to constantly putting tension on the leash, and as a result it is much more difficult to teach the dog to walk nicely at your side.

- You have much less control when your dog is at a distance from you. I can't count the number of horrible stories I've heard about someone's dog darting out into the road in front of a car despite being "on lead" on a flexi.

- Similar to the previous point, if your dog is out in front of you and you approach another dog who's uncomfortable with your dog it could trigger a confrontation that would otherwise be avoided if your dog was controlled at your side.

- I highly highly recommend you teach your dog how to walk loose leash at your side. You have infinitely more control over them, and you're both able to keep tabs on what the other is doing.

The collar (flat, slip, martingale, prong, head, harness, electric)


The flat collar is the most basic of dog collars. It either buckles or latches like a belt, and it lays flat on your dog's neck. These collars are comfortable and make good everyday collars for ID tags, licences etc.

*** It is not recommended you ever keep your collar on your dog if you aren't watching it. *** It sounds silly, but accidents happen. Always make a point of removing your dog's collar if you're crating it or leaving the house. (Always ensure there's no way the dog could get loose without ID tags.)


Slip collars are commonly referred to as choke collars, or choke chains. They are not recommended. The idea behind them is that when your dog misbehaves you "check" him with a swift yank and release of the chain. There is a risk of damaging a dog's throat while using these, even when using them properly. Improperly used you can risk limiting a dog's air flow and doing significant damage.


Martingales are a hybrid between a traditional collar and a slip.
They have an area on them which can tighten when force is applied. These collars are recommended for sighthounds and other dog breeds with heads smaller than their necks since these collars will tighten instead of letting the dog slip out.

These can also be used as slip collars are used, with a quick check of the leash. They're an improvement over the typical slip since they will only tighten so far. However, using these collars in this way is not recommended. There are more effective methods of training that don't rely on leash pops.


Prong collars are designed similarly to martingales where they check the dog when pressure is applied to the collar. The prongs inside add additional discomfort so a dog is likely to avoid putting any pressure on it.

Suzanne Clothier, who no longer uses prongs in training but wants people to use them correctly, says (emphasis hers):
"When properly fitted, the prong collar should be at roughly the mid-way point on the dog's neck, with the chain portion flat, not sagging. Beware those who recommend fitting a prong collar (or any collar) up high, near the dog's ears - their intention is to cause pain by putting the collar in this nerve rich, muscle poor area of great sensitivity."

Read the whole article here. It has some good information on successful prong collar training.

They can be an effective tool to teach loose leash walking, however they MUST be used in conjunction with proper training (not just as a crutch) or the dog is not likely to behave the same way if on a different collar.

If you use this collar please remember to remove it before letting your dog off leash at the park. I see a number of dogs playing with these on, and it's not a good idea.


Head collars fit around a dog's nose and around the back of their head. They latch either below the jaw or behind the ears. These can be a good tool to control an over-excited or rambunctous dog. If a dog puts pressure on the leash it will only serve to turn its head.

These are not muzzles. Be prepared to answer a lot of questions about why your dog is in a muzzle if you choose to use one of these.

Be very very careful to never apply swift pressure if a dog is wearing a head collar -- you risk torquing the neck and causing serious damage. Again, as with the prong collar, these are a training tool, and should be used in conjunction with proper training.

Try either Canny Collar or Sporn Collar. They're both head halters that attach to the leash behind the dog's head, instead of under the chin (like Haltis or Gentle Leaders). They're preferable to the under the chin designs since there's less risk of injury to the dog's neck if sudden pressure is accidentally applied to the leash.


Harnesses come in a few basic designs -- front clip and back clip. Back clip harnesses are more common and traditional. These are great since they put no pressure on a dog's neck and can be very comfortable to wear. Front clip harnesses are used as tools to alleviate pulling. If a dog puts pressure on the leash it will only serve to turn its body away from what it's trying to focus on. Again, as with the prong collar, these are a training tool, and should be used in conjunction with proper training.


Electic collars, or e-collars are a highly specialized training tool and SHOULD NOT BE USED without proper, face to face training with an accomplished professional. Also, the use of these collars is outlawed in certain countries (Wales, for instance).

They deliver an electric shock (aka nick) or a buzz (aka a page) to varying degrees upon the handler keying it into the handheld controller. They range from a tiny shock that feels like a warm sensation, to a HOLY GOD THAT HURT shock meant to "put a dog down" if it's getting into trouble (for instance if a dog starts chasing after game in the field, putting itself and others at risk).

These collars have their place in teaching advanced behaviours while at a distance from the handler -- most notably hunting. They SHOULD NOT BE USED to teach basic obedience, or in lieu of proper training techniques. They're very susceptable to being misused (and the dog abused), so they should be approached only after thorough research.

The toys (tug, fetch, and others)

Toys can be an excellent primary reinforcer. Some dogs are more nuts for toys than food, so use it to your advantage! Toys tend to build drive and excitement, whereas food rewards tend to have a calming effect.


Some dogs absolutely love playing tug. Tug is a great game, and minute for minute, is probably one of the fastest ways to tire your dog out. Some trainers recommend not playing tug for silly reasons (dominance), but I think it's a great option as long as you have a degree of control over your dog. For instance, when I play with my dog, I'll periodically ask her to drop it, and when she complies I reward her with MORE TUG OMG. Dropping it is important, but it shouldn't always signal the end of the game.


Games of fetch can help dogs run themselves ragged. Balls, frisbees, etc are great to play fetch with. I reward my dog with a kibble for almost every retrieval she does to further increase the value of the game. I do this since she's not as crazy about chasing balls as some dogs, but I didn't want to miss out on such a valuable way to drain energy.

The crate

Crating is a good way to limit your dog's access to the house when you can't supervise them. A crate should serve as a den -- a safe, warm, happy place they can go to when they're feeling tired, stressed, etc.

Some countries do not allow their use, and some people consider them cruel. But used as part of a training regimen they can be very helpful. Dogs who are crate trained handle boarding better, overnight vet visits, etc. Crates are also almost a necessity at dog shows and sporting events.

The training classes

Training classes are a fantastic way to train your dog. But they don't really train your dog, they train you how to train your dog, which is infinitely more helpful in my opinion.

Training classes offer a controlled environment to work with your dog. The more time you spend working with your dog the better a relationship you can have with them. Training classes cover a vast array of subjects, from the most basic of puppy obedience, tricks, off leash skills, etc to competitive sports like competitive obedience, rally, agility, nosework, dock diving, herding and more.

I highly recommend you look into classes regardless of how accomplished you might be. There's always someone better out there who can offer you insight on things you might otherwise have missed.

The hard part is finding a suitable training facility. The general rule of thumb is to determine whether they use positive reinforcement techniques, and whether the instructor has any advanced performance titles on their dog(s).

Reference books

When in doubt, read. There are loads of helpful dog training books out there.

The internet

This is an overlooked resource. Youtube is an amazing place. If you're stuck on a trick or behaviour, search it up on youtube to receive a dozen different videos suggesting a dozen different ways you can teach it. Of course, like anything, there's loads of garbage interspersed with good advice, so you'll have to determine what will work for you.

My favourite youtube dog trainer is Kikopup -- check her out.

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