Tell me about your experiences with clicker training your pets

So, I’ve got this dog and this new cat. The dog’s 14, the cat is unwelcome in his house. I thought a good idea, while I try to introduce them bloodlessly, would be to give the dog some training - about all he does is sit, previously, and mostly not pee in the house. (Right now he has a urinary tract infection, which means we’re down to just sitting.) I’ve been trying this clicker training thing, but the animals have had a hard time catching on. The cat is slowly getting it, but the dog… not so much. He’s a smart dog, but he’s independent and stubborn.

I’ve been starting off having them touch a target with their noses. The cat’s getting it, the dog touches it by accident sometimes when he’s sniffing for the treats. I don’t think he gets the clicker thing. Treats, he gets. Clicker, kind of baffling. I keep “charging up” the clicker when we start a session, giving him a treat and a click to associate them in his mind, but so far no dice.

Suggestions? Experiences with training animals that don’t catch on so quick? Especially, has anybody successfully done a lot of training of an older animal?

Clicker training is not right for every dog. Dogs which respond best to it are moderately intelligent dogs who have an eagerness to please. If the dog is very intelligent, the clicker method might not work as well for them.

My dog Polaris, ended up being one of those who was “too smart” for the clicker method. As an example, I was trying to teach her the command “off.” Whenever she would get up on the couch, I would tell her “off” and as soon as she jumped down, clicked and treated. She quickly figured out that the way to get a treat was to “disobey” so that I would give her the command and then a treat for obeying.

There could be a lot of reasons why he’s not responding to the clicker. Your dog may simply not like the sound of the clicker which he may associate with something unpleasant (you never know what’s going on in their two-watt brains.) A friend of mine had better results with shaking a bag of treats instead of clicking. The dog knew that sound meant food and was always delighted to hear it.

Your dog might respond better to the pop-and-praise method, especially if that was what was used during his earlier training. In the clicker method, you don’t say anything if the dog gets the command wrong-- you just wait until he gets it right and then praise. Dogs who are impatient or have a short attention span have trouble with this.

In the pop-and-praise method, you give mild correction when the dog gets the command wrong. (The word “pop” comes from giving a gentle tug on the dog’s choke collar during heel training.) My eldest dog, Bean, responded best to this method. I would give a command and she would try to obey, but if she got it wrong, I would say, “No*” and shake my head and repeat the command, guiding her if necessary, into the correct behavior.**

How does your dog respond to praise? Does he get really excited and happy when you tell him he’s a good boy? If he doesn’t, you may want to make his reward treats better. Give him pieces of hotdog instead of biscuits to give him an incentive to obey if your verbal praise isn’t enough to make him really happy.

Start and end each training session with an easy command that he knows well. Dogs, like children, can get frustrated towards learning if they’re not catching on quickly. You want to make training as fun as possible, and always end it on a positive note. Praise the beejezus out of him when he gets the command right and give him the rest of the hotdog.

  • Say it in a “That’s not exactly right” tone rather than a sharp NO! of correction.

** Treat luring: use a treat to direct the dog into the position you want them to be in, like lowering it toward the floor when you want them to lie down.

My bird thought the clicker was a new toy and started mimicking it.


Well, the dog is very food motivated, and that’s something, at least. He’s not impatient or easily bored, he’s totally with the “let’s training!” thing, just doesn’t seem to make the clicker connection. One problem is that he’s very excited when I sit down with him, so maybe he has a hard time concentrating on what exactly he’s being asked to do. I’m not sure how to calm him down - when the treats come out it’s furious-tail-wagging time. Also, this is an old dog and these are new tricks.

I think you may want to wear him out with a long session of fetch in the back yard before you start training. If he’s tired, he may be in a calmer mood when it comes time to train.

I train primarily with clicker. I prefer it highly over most other methods. To tell the truth (and I don’t want to be insulting) the dog almost ALWAYS gets it quickly IF the human has the timing and philosophy understood.

For instance - Lissa, by giving the dog a command before the dog knew the behavior, you are not waiting for the dog to offer the correct behavior in the first place. You will get alternate behaviors (ie causing the “training” and thus treating, to happen) and not what you intended.

Your dog is older, and for older dogs it can be hard to “unlearn” the most trained behavior we usually teach a dog, which is “stay still and be quiet and a treat will happen eventually”. It is not something we usually intend to train, but it happens anyhow.

Have you had your dog’s hearing checked lately? He may not be hearing the click. Try a verbal “yesssss!” or “boop!” for a bit. And, yo might want to get an experienced clicker trainer to watch your technique and see if you have the timing down.

Why are you sitting down while training? Sitting with the dog gives odd messages - usually “let’s play” not “let’s try something else”. Try standing. Don’t use you voice at all. Don’t try to train a particular action with your first attempts - free shape something the dog gives you willingly, to get his brain working on a new path.

Shoot - there is so much to tell you about the reasons that clicker may not be working for you… too bad you are half a country away, or I’d have you come to class!

Oh, I hadn’t even thought about me sitting down - you’re right, that’s what I do when I want to play with him. Whoops!

Oh, and trust me, he hasn’t learned “stay still and be quiet and a treat will happen eventually”, accidentally or on purpose. Mostly he’s learned “Hit up Daddy for a treat, because he’s a sucker”. Now that we don’t live with my dad, he probably feels at loose ends, treat-wise.

Is it possible to hire a pro to work with my dog and my cat together? I tried introducing them again tonight, with the cat free this time and the dog on a halter and muzzled. He was much better, I think, but that’s probably partly because I was brushing him and he can’t help how that makes his rear end shake. :slight_smile: He didn’t growl this time, anyway, although he barked and seemed very anxious that maybe I somehow didn’t notice that there was a cat right over there! I’m concerned that his terrier instincts, combined with his experience chasing stray cats out of his yard in the old house, are going to make it impossible for them all to get along and I was wondering if maybe this was a job for the pros.

I’m kind of afraid a pro might say to put Hap down, though, because sometimes he does bite strangers. I just keep him away from strangers and he’s fine, but he’s really not a dog for the public.

Well, I skipped over that part in the interests of brevity. The usual method is to teach the behavior before you give it a name, but I found that my dog learned most quickly when there was a verbal and singal comman introdcued very early in the process.

What would really be ideal, Zsofia, is if you could get a trainer who uses multiple methods to evaluate your dog and devise a program based on his personality. If that can’t be done, I would suggest researching different methods and trying them to see how well he responds to it. You may find that a combination of two methods works best.

Polaris, the dog I mentioned before, learned more quickly when I used hand signals along with verbal commands. Body language is a dog’s first language after all.

My youngest dog, Sirius, needed constant verbal guidance/encouagement. He had been abused in his previous home and he’s a timid little thing. If he didn’t get a behavior right on the first try, he would just freeze, panicking that he didn’t know what I wanted. I would say gently “Try again,” until he got it right. This is why the clicker method initial step of “tricking” the dog into a behavior didn’t work for him. If I just stood there looking at him expectantly, he would get scared.

Dog training is primarily the human figuring out how to communicate with the dog. Once a common “language” is agreed upon, it usually goes very smoothly. It’s all a matter of discovering which methods best suit your dog’s personality.

If your dog is excitable and easily distracted, probably not. In the later stages of training, you might be able work with the two of them together. (Some dogs even make it into a competitve game to see who gets the treat first.) But for the time being, work with them seperately.

I had a hell of a time getting my eldest dog, Bean, to accept the younger two. It took months for her to even tolerate the puppy being within ten feet of her. She’s still very cranky with them but she at least accepts that they aren’t going anywhere.

Ouch . . . this isn’t good, as I’m sure you know. Any dog which is aggressive enough to bite does need professional training.

How do you even find a dog trainer that’s willing to work with a difficult dog like Hap, and how much would it cost? (I mean, the dog’s 14. I don’t want to sound callous, but I don’t want to spend a bunch of money training a dog that may not live very long. He’s very healthy, but still, you gotta think about these things.)

The only thing I can suggest is that you call around. Your vet may have some suggestions. The most expensive trainer I ever worked with cost about $150 for a two-week intensive course.

At fourteen, I agree that I’d be hesitant to spend a lot of money and at that age, he may be sort of set in his ways when it comes to aggression. You could probably lessen it somewhat, but he’s never going to be a cuddle-puppy.

Oh, he’s a cuddle-puppy with the family, I don’t want to give you guys the wrong idea about him. It’s just that, when he was maybe 8 or 9 and I was in college and my parents took him from house to house to house he started to go a little… nuts. The aggression thing - he’ll run up to a stranger all cheerful and happy, and the stranger will pet him and he’ll be thrilled about it and then all of a sudden turn into Psycho-Dog and plant teeth firmly in hand. He was tested for all kinds of physical issues at the time, but nothing turned up. Went to a special eye-doctor and everything. We think he’s just got some mental issues.

Does he growl or put his ears back before he bites? From your description, it sounds almost like an “excitement bite.” I’ve met dogs who do that-- they’re so excited that they don’t know what to do, and they bite almost as a way of releasing that tension. (Not really hard.)

If this is the case, he might benefit from anti-anxiety medication. My eldest dog is pretty grumpy in her old age. She takes a daily anti-anxiety tablet and it has helped her demonstrably. It’s not very expensive. (IIRC, it’s about $15 for a month’s supply.) It might take you a while to find the right one. Bean took three or four medications before we found one that helped her.

No, he shows absolutely no warning. It’s just happy dog to snarling growling biting thing in no time at all. And he bites hard. I mean, he tore one guy’s hand up. (After we told him not to pet the dog. And you know what? Two weeks later he did it again! Now, I can’t help you if you’re that dumb.) The funny thing is, the people at the vet’s and the groomer’s just dote on him. He’s their favorite dog. Never hurts a flea, out there off his own territory and with people who are used to dogs.

It’s not really an issue now, though - I live alone, and he’s fine with me. There’s a lock on the gate to the yard and warning signs up. He can’t be around my boyfriend - he’d probably get used to him just fine, but I told Aaron so many things about the dog to keep him from trying to pet him that the guy’s scared to death of the dog. It’s okay, I just seperate them. It’s kind of like keeping a betta fish alone - he’s perfectly happy as long as I don’t introduce the stimuli that would make him bite. However, there are ways I’m afraid to handle him that I think aren’t really this specific problem, I think we’ve got some confusion on who’s dominant in this here household. That I think could be helped with training. In other words, I think his biting of people is one specific issue, but his other bad behavior is just bad behavior.

How old was he when you got him?

How is he with other dogs?

Does this happen if the new person is sitting down, or only when they’re bending over him?

Describe to me what his demeanor is like when someone comes in. How are his ears positioned? (A wagging tail doesn’t always mean the dog is happy.) What about his posture?

What things are you afraid to do to him? Can you take toys or food away from him? Can you clip his nails?

Here are some tips to help you work on his dominance issues:

  1. Make him lie down before you give him his food. (Lying down is more submissive than just sitting.) Don’t give him any treats without making him obey a command first.

  2. Don’t let him walk through doors before you do.

  3. Don’t allow him on the furniture. Dogs think that there’s a lot of status in being allowed to sit in the highest location in a room like the King of the Mountain.

  4. Don’t play tug-of-war with him. With most dogs, it’s just a harmless, fun game but with dogs who have dominance issues they can see it as a challenge.

He was a puppy when I got him, 8 weeks or whenever you’re supposed to take puppies home. He’s fine with other dogs. Frankly, he hasn’t been around a stranger in the house for so long I couldn’t tell you what his body language is - he barks at people when he’s outside, but it’s a normal “intruder alert” doggy bark. The incidents I remember were when people bent over him, or seated and leaning down to him - not sure if anything ever happened when he was on the same level as they.

The things I’m nervous about doing to him are probably fine, and when I do have to do them there’s no problem - he’s never bitten me, except once when he was a puppy and had an ear infection we didn’t know about. He had a lot of ear infections and eventually did have surgery to relocate the end of his ear canal, which fixed the problem pretty much. I’m just a little nervous about picking him up when he’s not obviously asking me to, picking up his feet to put a halter on him when he’s standing on them, things like that. Also, there are times when I’m definately afraid to touch him, like when he’s hot on the trail of a possum or similar - when he’s very intense and prey-driven. When I’m experimentally putting him in the room with the cat, I muzzle him for the cat and for me. I certainly don’t live in fear of him, and we coexist quite happily most of the time.

He doesn’t lie down on command, he only sits. (He always sits for food - it’s the first (well, only) command he ever learned and he learned it Real Good. Sometimes he’s so excited he can only curtsey, though.) To have him lie down for food I’d have to first teach him to lie down, which gets back to the root of the OP. :slight_smile: How do you get a dog to not walk through doors before you do?

Also, he’s been allowed on furniture for 14 years and I’m not sure that’s a battle worth fighting at this point.

By the way, I just tried a clicker session with him, while I was standing up. Huge difference. He’s catching on slowly, but was a million times more focused this time. I can’t believe I didn’t realize what a mistake it was to sit with him! I’ve also been clicking and treating for sitting on command, hoping that will help him get the click thing, since he already knows how to sit.

Meanwhile, the cat will stand on his hind legs to touch his nose to the target, already. Just goes to show you it’s not always true what they say about cats and dogs.

Is there any chance he was ever abused?

Okay, this may sound a little weird, but come up with a “comfort sound.” I click my tongue, but you could sing or hum-- anything that sounds cheerful. Get hin used to it by giving him treats whenever you’re doing it and whenever you’re giving him belly rubs. Then, whenever you need to do something he doesn’t like, make that sound.

There’s a chance that your body language may be making him more tense in these situations. If you expect trouble, you’re probably tense and nervous. Dogs can sense that a mile away. What you need to do is make a big show of being calm and relaxed. Tell him what a good boy he is while he’s being calm. Distract him by giving him a treat. (One of my dogs hates having his nails clipped, so I smear some peanut butter on the fridge and let him lick it off while I’m clipping.)

Here’s how I taught my dogs to lie down: I would put a treat in front of their nose and lower it toward the ground and outward away from the dog at the same time. The outward motion seems to make them want to belly-crawl once the treat gets only a few inches from the floor. Once his belly touches the ground, click and reward. Then, add the command as you’re luring him downwards with the treat. This one is a hard command for a dominant dog to learn because they just don’t want to do it. It’d probably be best if you wore him out with lots of exercise before you started on this one.

Well, you have to have a “stay” or wait command.

This one can often be taught pretty quickly. As your’re walking through a doorway, swing your hand down until it’s in front of the dog’s face. (Though not too quickly or he may think he’s going to get smacked.) Dogs almost always stop in their tracks the first time you do this, especially if you have a piece of hotdog in your hand. Click and reward, even if he only pauses for a moment. Lather, rinse, repeat. Once he knows to “stay” or “wait” make him pause in every doorway, and at the foot of the stairs to let you pass first.

Well, maybe we can modify it a bit, then. Does he know a command to get off the furniture? The point is to make him understand that the high places are yours. When you want to sit on the couch, make him get off for a moment-- maybe have him sit or something. Then you sit down and give him permission to come up with you.

If he doesn’t know “off”, here’ss how to teach it. Lure him off the furniture with a piece of hot dog. As soon as his paws hit the floor, click and treat. Stand up, and casually hold the hotdog in your hand. He’ll probably stand up and put his paws on your legs to try to reach it. Hold your hand straight out above his head. He’ll probably back up and try to stand on two legs to reach it. Wait until he loses his balance and puts his paws back on the floor then click and reward. Keep doing this until he understands “off” means “paws on the ground.”

Maybe the fact that our family “get off there” command is “GIT, DAMMIT! GIT! DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT COSTS?” is hampering my dog from learning to get down from things, eh? I’ll definately work on “down” and “stay” - I figure any work with the dog is good for him, as long as he doesn’t get really frustrated by it.

He’s always been with us, I can’t imagine that he’s been abused. We board him with our vet’s office, where they love him and he’s thrilled to go. Ditto the groomer. The only abuse he’s suffered is at the hand of the meter reader, who pepper sprayed him, and he’s never forgiven anybody in a uniform.

Then it might be possible he’s reacting to your tension as well as some latent nervousness. Whenever your’re in a situation where he might feel threatened, act ostentatiously comfortable and secure.

Good luck!