What kind of treats should I bring to class?

Choosing which kind of and how many treats, or food rewards, to bring to a dog training class is one of the most important factors in your training success during class time. Choosing the right treat can mean the difference between a “Wow!” training session and one where you struggle to hold your dog’s attention the entire class.

Before choosing a food treat for your dog, consult your veterinarian about your dog’s diet and make sure there is no food your dog cannot have, for health reasons. Most dogs tolerate “people food” relatively well, especially considering they will only be getting this food during class and occasional training outings, rather than every meal.

Which treat is best? I often find a combination of foods is the most likely to hold a dog’s attention throughout an entire class, with other dogs, new sights and scents and people all competing for your dog’s attention. Experiment at home with several different food rewards, and keep a list of which treats your dog likes best. (I like to rank them 1 to 10, 1 being the lowest and 10 being the most amazing treat that your dog will do anything to get!)

For example, kibble or dry dog biscuits might be ranked a 1 or a 2, even if your dog loves to eat. These offerings are typically ignored during a class by all but the most indiscriminate of eaters. Uncooked hot dogs and store-bought treats usually come in at a 3 or 4. This may surprise you, as it does a number of people who bring these treats to class, only to find their dog snubs them. “But he loves these at home!” is a typically surprised reaction.  

Level 5 treats and above are usually required to compete with the dog movie theater that is a training class. This could include anything from cheese to Natural Balance or Red Barn food rolls to boiled chicken breast, roast beef or even cooked liver!

A few more tips for using treats in class:

Use small treats. If your dog finds the treat appetizing enough, she should be willing to work for small portions. Small dogs can have licks of canned food, baby food or peanut butter from a jar or spoon. Or, you can take a treat sized for a larger dog and cut it into smaller pieces. Medium-sized dogs can have treats the size of your fingernail. For a large dog, more than 70 lbs., aim for something similar to nickel-sized slices of hot dog. Some folks like to use a Lickety Stik, essentially bacon flavoring delivered one lick at a time.

Texture matters. Think about how you will be using the treats in class; if you need them to lure the dog into position, sometimes a soft treat, or food the dog can lick rather than eat piece-by-piece is best. If you are working on exercises that require you to dole out one piece of food at a time, soft but sturdy pieces are often best. Whatever you choose, make sure it is not crunchy; dogs often have a harder time swallowing crunchy pieces quickly, or are forced to chew them, which slows repetition of the behavior or delivery of the next treat.

You will use more treats during class than you think you will. Plan on bringing a full dinners’ worth of treats, plus half, to class. For example, if your dog normally eats one cup of food at his evening meal, bring one-and-a-half cups of treats. Better to have food left over than to run out before you and your dog have finished training!

Is your dog afraid of the clicker?

It’s not unusual for some dogs to have “clicker aversion,” especially with box clickers, as they make a loud, sharp sound. Start with the clicker behind your back, or in a pocket, to muffle the sound at first. If you’re trying to clicker train your dog and he or she seems to be worried about the sound, please stop using your clicker immediately. Some dogs show few signs of discomfort before suddenly running from the room when the clicker is presented; others look increasingly uneasy with every click. Better to stop sooner rather than later, as the problem is harder to fix if your dog has developed a phobia.

Next time you’re ready for a training session, start with your dog in a different location using different treats, no clicker in sight. Give a quick “smooch” sound with your lips instead of the clicker… if this worries your pup for some reason, just switch to the word “Yes” instead. If you’d like to go back to a mechanical clicker, try to find one that makes a softer sound, or even use the top of a click pen. Don’t attempt to reintroduce the clicker, however, until your dog has had a few weeks of non-clicking clicker training!

Surprisingly, dogs who are bothered by the sound of the clicker at home seem to cope perfectly well in a class or an environment where the other dogs are getting clicked.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Anton Novoselov

Use ‘Hide Your Eyes’ for better control of your dog in public


The point of the above exercise is to teach our dogs to face away from distractions on cue. In the above example, I’m teaching Marty McFly to “hide his eyes” between my knees. Once he has learned the behavior, I can request this anytime a potential distraction comes along, to keep his focus on me. This is an excellent tool to use as a warm-up for arrival in a public place, setting up an automatic response from your dog to turn and look at you when you get out of the car.

Once he is offering the behavior on his own, without the use of a hand target, I can drop the hand target altogether and only click and treat those responses which happen on cue. The cue can be “Hide your eyes,” “Hide,” “Focus,” “Here” or anything else you like. Feeding him in the correct position allows me to extend the behavior bit by bit, as I can gradually lengthen the amount of time he waits in position before I reinforce with a treat.

This behavior takes just a few minutes to shape, and with a little practice you can have one more tool for obtaining focus and control from your dog in your toolbox.

Teach your dog to Shake Hands

This is a great trick to teach your canine companion; what better way for him to greet a new human friend than with the shake of a paw? Shaking hands is a relatively easy trick to train, but as with everything else it may take a little patience. There are a few ways to train the behavior.

Method One

If your pup likes to use his paws to get to things, this method may work the best for you:

Step One: Place a treat in your palm and pin it down with your thumb. Allow your dog to investigate.

Step Two: Your dog may sniff, but just ignore this. As soon as he paws at your hand, mark the behavior with a click or a word such as “Yes” or “Good,” then give a treat with your other hand. This is important!

Step Three: Repeat step two until he is automatically pawing at your hand every time you offer it.

Step Four: Now try offering your hand in the same position, minus the treat; if he paws, great! And remember, keep giving your dog his treat with your other hand. If he doesn’t paw at your hand this time, go back to step two until the behavior is a little stronger.

Step Five: Once your pup is pawing at your hand without the treat, try moving to an open, flat hand. If he paws, mark it and treat as always! He’s getting the hang of it now.

Step Six: When he’s comfortable with this, you can add a verbal cue such as “Shake!” to the behavior by saying your cue then offering your hand.

Step Seven: Reduce the treats he gets gradually, until he’ll shake your hand on cue with no reward.

Don’t forget to treat once in a while to keep the behavior strong!

Method Two

Another way to teach this behavior is by physically taking the dog’s paw into your hand.

Step One: Say your cue (such as “Shake!”), gently lift your dog’s paw with your hand and immediately mark this with a click or a word such as “Yes” or “Good”, and give her a treat.

Step Two: Repeat step one; this can take a different amount of time depending on your pup, but expect to do a few sessions of just step one.

Step Three: Eventually, your dog will respond to your cue word by raising her paw without your hand!

These two methods should help you on your way to teaching your pooch this classic trick. Enjoy!

Creative Commons License photo credit: Bob B. Brown

Teach your dog to Roll Over

This trick is great fun for most dogs, but it can be a little scary for some pups to show their belly. Go slow, and if your dog isn’t having fun, you can always try something else.

Step One: [intlink id=”635″ type=”post”]Get your dog to lie down.[/intlink]

Step Two: With a treat in one hand and a clicker (if you so choose) in your other, lure the dog on his side by moving the treat behind his head. Your dog should turn his head and shift his body position; when he does, click and give him the treat.

Step Three: Go a little further each time, until your dog is on his side. Click, treat, and continue luring him onto his back, giving treats often. If your dog gets tired, don’t be afraid to give him a break.

Step Four: Once your pup is on his back, he might roll to the other side on his own! If he does, click and treat it, release him, and keep going.

Step Five: When he is reliably rolling all the way over with your lure, start going through the same procedure without a treat in your hand, but still click and reward once he completes the behavior.

Step Six: Add in your verbal cue while very gradually fading your lure. After a few sessions, your pup will now roll over on cue without the hand signal!

Have a blast teaching your dog this entertaining trick!

Creative Commons License photo credit: OakleyOriginals

The 15-minute feeding schedule

Kibble faceWhat is the 15-minute feeding schedule?

It’s the simplest way to alter the way your dog interacts with you, with the least effort on your part.

If your dog is already on the 15-minute feeding schedule, pat yourself on the back, go grab some kibble and a clicker, and get to work on Charging The Clicker. If your dog turns up his nose at the idea of dinner as a reward, the 15-minute feeding schedule will work wonders.

What to do:
1. Check with your vet about feeding requirements. Most dogs will survive on the low end of the bag of kibble’s feeding recommendations with no ill effects, but if in doubt, ask your veterinarian. If you’re feeding substantially more than the low end suggestion, and your vet says it’s OK, cut back to the recommended amount over a period of days.
2. Pick up your dog’s food bowl. The days of filling the bowl in the morning and leaving it out all day are over. (“But he likes to eat overnight/while I’m gone/etc.!” Exactly… your dog is determining the food’s value, not you.)
3. Set a timer… for 15 minutes! (Or 20, if you’re feeling guilty.) Then, set out the normal portion for that meal. Whatever is still there after 15 minutes is picked up and returned to the bag. Do NOT save the uneaten portion for the next meal. The regular portion is set out at the next meal.

That’s it! Your dog may not eat at first, but soon he’ll realize there’s an expiration date on the food bowl, and it’s determined by YOU.

Soon you’ll see a happy, engaged response when you reach for the food bag, indicating that your dog views his kibble as a valuable resource. And once you control the resources, you can control the dog.

Creative Commons License photo credit: mrdorkesq

How old should my puppy be before I start training?

“How old does my puppy have to be before I can begin training?”

This is a question I am asked often. The puppy in this video is 10 weeks old; but you don’t even have to wait that long! “Training” starts the day you bring your new dog or puppy home to live with you — dogs are learning all the time. This is why it is easier to prevent problems and bad habits than to solve them later.

(Check out our Puppy Kindergarten class in Athens!)

But what most people mean when they ask this question is, “How soon can I expect my puppy to start performing tricks and basic obedience behaviors?” Happily, the answer is the same — immediately. Clicker training is an easy and fun way to accomplish this.

Disc Doggin’!

This is my friend Tracy Custer (foster mom to my cattle dog Gimli — Tracy has a littermate), practicing with a few of her 11 (yes, 11) amazing rescued disc dogs.

Most of the moves you see here are used in freestyle competition, which involves the handler throwing to the dog, who catches and performs tricks to music. Awesome stuff.

The good news is, anyone with a clicker and a dog with a little bit of drive can participate in freestyle disc (and if you’re more into throwing than fancy footwork, there’s a distance competition, too).

Want a smarter dog? Try target training

Kessel targetingAn easy way to add to your dog’s repertoire of tricks or commands is to teach her how to target objects.

Targeting (or “target training”) means your dog pays attention to, and then performs an action based on, a particular stimulus (usually an object such as your hand, or a target stick). A dog putting his paw on an object on command, or bumping your hand with his nose upon request, is targeting. Targeting is a super-quick behavior to teach and has a variety of uses.

“Go to your mat” is one handy result of target training. We first teach the dog to “target” his mat, add the cue “Go to your mat,” and then place in a location of our choosing. Agility trainers use targeting quite often to teach their dogs not to skip contact zones while climbing or dismounting obstacles. Service dog trainers use targeting to teach dogs to open doors, turn lights on and off, and more.

Teaching hand targeting

Targeting your hand is an easy behavior for most dogs to learn. Follow the steps below to get started. You’ll need a clicker, a bunch of small, tasty, easy-to-swallow treats, and a leash (if your dogs needs a reason to stick around).

  1. Remember to always offer your dog a reward after you click, even if you have made an error.
  2. Offer your dog your hand, palm facing the tip of her nose (you can hold your hand in whatever position is most comfortable). Most dogs will sniff or lick your hand out of curiosity. As soon as she touches your hand, click and offer a treat. If your dog does not attempt to touch your hand, put it behind your back for a second or two, then try again. If your dog is having trouble finding your palm, hold it closer to her face. Click only when she reaches and touches your palm with her nose.
  3. Timing is everything! Be sure you are clicking as the dog’s nose touches your hand, not after. Otherwise, she won’t understand which behavior is earning a treat.
  4. Add the word “touch” or “target” just as your dog touches your hand. As your dog becomes more fluent, begin asking your dog to touch your palm, using the command.
  5. Raise and lower the target hand so that your dog has to take several steps to reach it. Have you moved it closer and closer to the ground, and up high so she has to stand up on her hind legs to reach it? Have you moved across the floor and had her follow you, nose to the target, as if her nose was magnetized?
  6. Begin asking your dog to target other objects with her nose, such as small container lids, pieces of cloth, the end of a stick, etc. You can also vary the length of time the dog must keep her nose on your hand or target object before she gets her click and treat.

Of course, you can teach your dog to target any number of objects, whether portable or not. The most portable object I ever used to teach target training was a sticker, which could then be placed anywhere, including unmovable places like walls!

See hand targeting in action:

Charging the clicker

A short video demonstrating how to get started with clicker training by introducing your dog to the clicker.