by Rachel Moseley
Markers, luring, shaping, capturing – it all sounds so far more complicated than it actually is. With a basic understanding of training techniques, you’ll be amazed how much easier it gets to figure out how to train new behaviors.
What is Clicker Training?
Clicker training is a concept most people that have been in the dog world for any length of time have at least heard mentioned in passing. It tends to get lumped in with Force Free training since it relies on a conditioned reinforcer, but balanced trainers use it as well. Clicker training is using a marker of sorts (either a word, typically “yes”, or a click with a clicker) to mark the exact moment your dog does a desired behavior. If you’re using a marker word keep it short. One syllable words work well. “Yes!” is a very common word for a marker.
For example, if you’re training a sit you would mark the second your dog’s butt hits the ground and then reward them. You’ll need to load your marker for clicker training to be effective. If you’re using a clicker, click and immediately follow it with a treat. Repeat this until your dog begins to look for the treat when you click. If you don’t wish to use a clicker substitute click with whatever marker word you’re planning on using.
When Should I Use Clicker Training?
Clicker training is useful for training practically everything. This method can and should be paired with all of the techniques mentioned below in this article to help communicate what you want with your dog.
A Note About FoodSome people take issue with clicker training (and any treat based training) because they think it will create a dog completely reliant on food. However, that is completely false. The dog will have to be weaned off of the food gradually. Unless you don’t make any effort to wean them off of constant food rewards they won’t be reliant on the food.
Once a behavior is solidly trained and proofed, weaning them to a random reward schedule is the best way to get consistent and reliable behaviors from your dog. That basically means that they get a treat occasionally when they do that specific behavior, without any schedule. For example, one time they get a treat the 3rd time they do the behavior, another time the 5th, another time the 2nd, etc. so that the reward is completely unpredictable.
Technique 1: Luring
Luring is, in my opinion, the easiest training technique to understand and properly utilize. The basic idea is that you put a treat in front of your dog’s nose and they’ll naturally want to follow it. You can use the treat to guide your dog into different positions (for example, sit), or get different behaviors out of them (like spinning in a circle).
Some behaviors are generally easiest to teach with a lure. This includes most basic obedience and even a few tricks. For example, to lure a dog to sit you would put the treat in front of their nose and gradually move it toward them and up until their butt hits the ground. Once they’re doing this consistently you’d name the behavior.
An important thing to keep in mind with luring is that you have to gradually fade the lure out. You can’t just go from luring a behavior to expecting them to do it on just the cue right away. The first step in phasing it out is to use the same motion that you used when you were luring it, but without food in your hand. If they struggle with that at any point go back to a proper food lure and then try again without the food. From there just gradually move the luring hand further and further away and lower the luring motion until they’re doing it without you luring at all.
Trainer Donna Hill has made a great video explaining the differences between baiting and luring, and showing how to fade your lure:
Technique 2: Shaping
Shaping is probably the hardest technique to master. The basic idea here is to reward any progress the dog makes towards the desired behavior in tiny baby steps. The most important thing for you as the handler/trainer is to be patient and don’t try to rush your dog at any point. You’ll need to be able to raise and lower criteria depending on your dog’s performance. If they’re struggling and not doing what you’re wanting but they’ll do the previous step, you may need to find a middle ground. After they’re successful with the intermediate step try upping the criteria again.
Watch trainer Emily Larlham use shaping to teach her dog to crawl under an object:
Timing your marker is crucial with shaping. If you time it incorrectly you’ll have a confused dog and you may set yourself back a bit. Always keep training sessions short and positive, and end on a success every time. Some dogs can get frustrated with shaping and you don’t want that to happen. If at any point you hit a wall and your dog is just not progressing for a few sessions, I would recommend taking a few days off. After a good break, start again with lower criteria before trying to build it up again.
Technique 3: Capturing
Capturing is easier to get a good handle on than shaping. It’s potentially even easier than luring depending on the trainer/handler. You simply want to “capture” behavior when your dog happens to do it. For instance, if you want your dog to sit you would just wait for them to sit. When that happens, mark the second their butt touches the ground. Then toss a treat away so they have to get up again. You would repeat this process until they perform it consistently and add the “sit” cue to the behavior.
I think capturing is the best method for training a dog to focus. All you need to do is look at your dog and wait. Eventually most dogs (especially young puppies) will at least glance at your eyes. You’d need to mark the second they made eye contact (no matter how brief) and reward. Eventually you can build duration and even add a cue for those times you need to get their complete and total focus.
I’m a firm believer that with an understanding of these techniques and some critical thinking and problem-solving skills you can figure out how to train just about any behavior. You’ll still benefit from having a professional trainer involved but the more knowledge you have about training in general the better you’ll be at it. Don’t be afraid to try things, trial and error is a large part of learning how to do anything (including training dogs).