Clicker Training Your Chihuahua

Clicker training refers to training using operant conditioning principles, using a behavior marker linked to positive reinforcement of high value. Clicker trainers routinely leave out negative reinforcement and positive punishment, due to the unwanted side effects of inhibiting behavior and forming negative associations with the trainer.

Of course, not all behavior makers are created equal. Marking the behavior with a novel sound (CLICK!) helps the dog process precise information quickly and speeds up the training process immensely. Other behavior markers can be used, such as a verbal “yes!”, a flashlight or thumbs-up motion for a deaf dog, or a whistle, but a clicker is distinctive and loud enough to stand out.

Using a distinctive sound, such as a click, allows us to mark exactly which behavior earned the reward. That’s why clicker trainers call the click an “event marker” or “bridging signal”. The click bridges or connects the behavioral event and its reward.

Ten Easy Tips For Clicker Training Your Chihuahua

  1. Pick a behavior to get started with. Begin with something your Chihuahua already does but that you haven’t really gotten under control yet, such as sitting in front of you or lying down when you sit on the couch.
  2. Click once just as your Chihuahua does the behavior, then follow up with a tiny, high-value treat.
  3. Click once. If you want to increase the value of the reinforcement for a particularly good response, give two or more tiny treats.
  4. The click ends the behavior, so don’t be alarmed if your Chihuahua pops out of position when he hears the click. Just deliver the treat and move on to the next rep.
  5. If you want to increase the duration of the behavior, slightly delay the click for a few seconds at a time.
  6. Keep sessions short. More is learned in ten good repetitions than twenty-five poor repetitions.
  7. Don’t wait for a finished behavior to click. Instead click for approximations, or small segments of the total behavior. If you are teaching down, you can click your Chihuahua moving toward the ground, and then click his chest touching the ground, and then his whole body touching the ground. Every discrete behavior has approximations.
  8. Carefully increase your criteria. When teaching your Chihuahua to sit, don’t increase the duration of the behavior to ten seconds, if he is not confident for five seconds.
  9. Use clicking for teaching incompatible behaviors. Click your Chihuahua for sitting for greetings instead of jumping to say hello. Click your Chihuahua for settling quietly on a mat when you eat your meals, rather than table begging.
  10. When your Chihuahua is offering the behavior to get you to click, label it with the cue. Begin to click only when you’ve given the cue, and ignore the behavior when a cue wasn’t given.

Do You Have To Use A Clicker

Using a standout sound like a metal clicker is an important piece of the program. The sound or signal has to be clear and concise and not something your Chihuahua will hear in other contexts, to avoid confusion.

Of course, trainers have a variety of markers that fit those criteria. Although dog trainers typically use metal clickers to mark behavior, dolphin and whale trainers often make use of whistles. Researchers training lab animals often use a buzz, tone, or flashing light to mark behaviors.

In a pinch, dog trainers have used bottle caps, pens, and their mouths to make a pop or cluck sound to mark behavior, as well as single, distinctive spoken word such as “Yes”. Trainers working with deaf dogs use a thumbs-up signal, a flash of a penlight, or the vibration on an electronic collar to mark behavior.

Any distinctive sound or signal you can provide consistently can be linked to reinforcement and used as behavior marker. However, that doesn’t mean any old thing will work.

For example, it’s very unlikely that a sound the handler makes vocally will be consistent enough to condition well for use with a novice dog learning new behaviors. However, many trainers are adept at delivering a marker word such as “Yes!” in a neutral, consistent manner when working with more experienced dogs.

Other markers, such as clicking sounds from pens or bottle caps that sound fine up close, often don’t carry the distance when you start moving away from your Chihuahua. They are lost in the wind or the sound of passing traffic or barking dogs.

So, although many dog trainers experiment a bit with finding a good marker system, they often rely on the old standby, a metal clicker, to fulfill their needs for marking new behaviors, especially when training inexperienced dogs.

Linking Your Marker To A Reinforcer

It sounds simple, just click and follow up with a treat. So, how does your Chihuahua make the connection between that sound, the behavior, and the reward? Conditioning the clicker correctly does follow the basic principle of classical conditioning. If your Chihuahua hears a click, and that is immediately followed by the food, the click becomes a predictor that the food is coming.

Charge up, or link, the sound and food by clicking and immediately giving your Chihuahua a tiny, high value treat. Do this ten or fifteen times in a row, just click-treat, click-treat. After the series, click once and observe your Chihuahua’s response. He should look expectantly for a treat.

If you present the food before he hears the click, the click will not be relevant to your Chihuahua. It’s just extraneous noise that happens during a training session, so be careful with your timing. If your timing is correct and your food delivery is fluent, go ahead and start training.

If your Chihuahua is startled by the clicking sound initially, or won’t eat after hearing the sound, you should modify the sound. Hold the clicker behind your back, hold it in your pocket, or wrap it in tape to muffle the sound initially. It is loud, and some dogs are easily startled especially if you are directing the sound toward them.

If your Chihuahua won’t eat, try a softer sound such as a pen cap click. Once your Chihuahua is comfortable with the softer sound, you can reintroduce the muffled clicker, and then move onto using it at full volume.


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