You’ve got your clicker, and you’re eager to get started. But before you introduce the clicker to your pit bull, you’ve got a little work to do on your own.
Clicker Training Mechanics
When someone complains that clicker training doesn’t work for their dog or that their dog cares only about the treats, not the clicks, it’s usually because the handler is making one or more mechanical mistakes. If you click with one hand while reaching into your treat bag with the other, guess what your dog is going to focus on?
That’s why it’s important to keep your hands and body as still as possible while clicking. Anything that could distract your dog from the click–reaching for treats, starting to pick up the toy you plan to use as a reinforcer, praise, jumping up and down–needs to wait until after you’ve clicked. You also need to learn to time your clicks with precision to ensure that you reinforce the behavior you intend to.
Practicing the Nuts and Bolts
When you practice the mechanics of clicker training, do it outside of your pit bull’s presence. The reason is simple: Every time your dog hears the clicker needs to be followed by a reinforcer, and initially you’ll be too busy learning clicker skills to deliver reinforcers.
Begin by clicking randomly to get comfortable with your clicker. Try using different fingers or even the palm of your hand, and practice clicking while standing, sitting, kneeling, and walking.
Now focus on keeping your body and hands as still as possible while clicking. There’s no need to point the clicker like a remote control; just keep your arms relaxed at your sides when you click.
Timing is Everything
As discussed in Clicker Training Your Pit Bull, the main reason to use a clicker instead of delivering the primary reinforcer directly is precision. The clicker enables you to mark the behavior you want the split second it occurs; however, learning to time your clicks with precision takes practice and keen observation skills.
While it’s possible to practice clicker timing by yourself, it’s easier if you have a friend or family member assisting you. Ask your friend to throw a ball against the wall and try clicking at the exact moment the ball touches the wall. Don’t have a ball handy? Ask your friend to randomly hold up between one and five fingers, and click every time she holds up two.
If no one is available to assist you, try throwing a ball high in the air and click every time it bounces on the ground. Alternatively, you can use the TV as your assistant. Decide in advance which behavior you want to mark and then practice capturing it the moment it occurs. Sporting events can be especially useful for this. For instance, you could click every time a certain player makes contact with the ball.
Now, there will be times when your dog delivers the exact behavior you want, but you’re too slow to mark it with a click. Perhaps you got distracted; it happens. In that case, you have two options. You can either do nothing, or you can treat your dog without clicking. Only use your clicker to mark behavior at the precise moment it occurs. For instance, if you’re trying to teach your puppy to sit, you would click the moment her butt touches the floor.
Once you are comfortable marking behavior the moment it happens while keeping your hands and body still, it’s time to add the next step. You’ll need a handful of bite-sized treats and a cup or bowl. Click with one hand, wait a second, then use your other hand to place one treat in the bowl. To make sure you don’t start moving too soon to deliver the treat, it may help to count out one second in your head after clicking.
A Few Words about Food Rewards
Your pit bull is not only very intelligent, he’s quick to pick up patterns and recognize routines. If you begin every training session by filling up and clipping on your bait bag, he’ll figure out in no time that this is an opportunity to earn treats. To prevent a scenario where your dog works only when he knows you’re carrying food, be unpredictable.
Sometimes you’ll use food rewards, and sometimes you’ll use another reinforcer (e.g., a game of fetch or tug with a favorite toy, hugs and praise, the opportunity to do something he really wants to do–you know best what motivates your pit bull). Sometimes you’ll carry food on your body, and sometimes you won’t (keep it stashed somewhere nearby).
Your dog needs to learn that the presence of food doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be using it as a reward, while the absence of food doesn’t mean you can’t produce the most delicious treat for him in a matter of seconds. The only thing that must be completely predictable is that clicks–even accidental ones–are always followed by a reward (primary reinforcer).
This is a good time to discuss another common concern people have about clicker training. If you’re worried that you’ll need to keep clicking and treating forever, don’t be. The clicker is a training tool, nothing more. Once your dog has learned the behavior in question and you’ve added a verbal cue and/or hand signal, you can slowly switch to a variable reinforcement schedule (instead of clicking and treating every time your dog performs the behavior correctly, you’ll click and treat every other time, then every third time, and so on).
Gradually you’ll phase out clicking the behavior entirely and just offer your standard reinforcement (praise, environmental reinforcers, the occasional treat, etc.).
Putting It All Together
Decide in advance which behavior you’re going to mark, click the moment you observe the behavior, wait a second, then place one treat into your cup or bowl. How was your timing? Did you remember to keep your body and hands as still as possible? Did you wait a second before moving to deliver the reinforcer? You’ll probably need to practice for a while until you’ve got this sequence down pat.
Introducing Your Clicker to Your Pit Bull
When you’re confident in your mechanical skills and your ability to time clicks with precision, you’re ready to introduce your pit bull to the clicker. Make sure you have some delicious treats available. Click and treat. At this point, you’re not marking behavior; you’re simply establishing the clicker as a secondary–or conditioned–reinforcer.
Your pit bull will probably be curious about the sound and come over to check out the little clicking device you’re holding. That’s okay; let him sniff it. Repeat clicking and treating until you’re reasonably certain he understands that hearing the click means he’s about to get a reward. Then go do something else for 15-20 minutes. Once you return to your dog, casually click and observe his reaction. If he immediately looks up and comes over to get his treat, you’re ready to start training. Otherwise you’ve got more click and treat repetitions to do.
Be sure to keep training sessions short, especially for puppies. Three or four ten-minute sessions scattered throughout the day will be far more effective than a single one-hour session. In fact, training doesn’t always need to occur in the context of a formal session at all. There are plenty of things your dog wants to do during the course of a day that can serve as very powerful reinforcers. Whether he wants to go outside to explore, brings you a toy for a round of tug, or would like to follow you into the basement where you do laundry, first ask him for a “sit,” “down,” “stay,” or whatever else you’ve been working on.
And remember to always have fun while clicker training with your pit bull!