Yesterday was the first day of dog school for me. Not for my dog, but just for me. Unlike real school, parent’s night is a week before the school term starts. Middle schools in this country could take a lesson from Lucky Dog Sports Club by bringing in the parents first, so we can get a whiff of those newly waxed floors, before the smell of tween BO ruins everything.
Mindy, our dog school teacher, told to us leave the dogs at home, but bring two items from the school supply list: A treat bag and a clicker.
This was my first introduction to the clicker. Until now, I thought the only purpose of a clicker was for the old home Jeopardy! game, which my family adored, back in the day when we would spend Friday nights doing jigsaw puzzles and playing board games. We each had a clicker, which we used to buzz in with the right answer, until we lost all the clickers and had to yell “BUZZ!” Today, I would just run into Petco to buy my Jeopardy! supplies.
At dog school for parents there was an hour of lessons on how a dog learns, how a dog thinks, what motivates a dog to stop eating its own poop and start acting more like Lassie and doing something useful like saving some kids from drowning in the well.
And then we got to practice using our clickers, with our pretend dogs, the person sitting next to us in class. Fortunately I had struck up a conversation with this woman before the session started so it wasn’t awkward at all when I started sticking my tongue out at her and touching her hands. We took turns being the dog and displaying desired behaviors - no, we didn’t lie down and roll over; we didn’t even heel very much. We touched our human’s palm and stuck out our tongue. We took turns being the human and when our palms got touched or we saw a tongue, we clicked our clicker and put a dried bean in a plastic cup.
I was surprised how much repetition I needed to get the clicker down pat. “Click the clicker, give a treat,” I snorted. “Like I need practice.”
I needed practice. Go figure.
My partner was no better. When I stuck my tongue out at her, she said, “Shoot, I keep wanting to stick my own tongue out.” More snorting from me. “You’ll see,” she said.
She was right. When we switched roles, I kept sticking my tongue out, much like I used to open my mouth when feeding my babies, like I could will their mouths open. Or maybe a human instinct when someone sticks out their tongue at you, is to return the favor. How would I know? I haven’t had someone stick her tongue out at me since second grade.
So after much practice, I was sent home to my real dog and entered the real world of clicker dog training. The first time I clicked the clicker, Abby acted as though someone shot her at the exact moment of a spontaneous thunderstorm. The clicker has an attitude, I’ll admit. But she soon got the hang of it: I do a good thing, I hear the clicker (wince) and soon after I get a treat. Good thing . . . clicker (wince) . . . treat.
I’m not exactly clear on the philosophy behind the clicker, but I think it has something to do with buying time to get a treat out to reward a clickable behavior. It’s like an extension cord from the good thing to the treat - it helps the dog make a connection. But, again, how would I know? We never formally trained our other dogs. They were free agents who didn’t live by very many rules or in crates. They were one forgotten Heartgard pill away from being strays.
For the rest of the day, Abby was clickered and treated every time she did something good.
We were going great until I used my stapler while she was licking her own butt. She couldn’t have been happier that that was a clickable action.