Clicker Training the Rescue Dog

Annie’s first lesson

Like most clicker classes, Annie’s first lesson involves explaining the techniques and then conditioning the clicker, that is, pairing it with food.  Nigel is a novice trainer, so he concentrates very carefully on the explanation, as he is determined to get this right.  He has also cut up some pieces of chicken, viennas (franks) and dried boerewors (a  South African dried sausage delicacy) to use as treats, and brought them along as instructed.

After the explanation, the members of the class are asked to condition the clicker by clicking and then giving the dog a treat – c/t – about 20 times.  Nigel notices that Annie doesn’t seem too interested in taking the treats, ignoring most of them and taking a few very carefully.  The trainer, a middle-aged lady called Beth, does, too, and comes over and c/t’s Annie several times.  Annie ignores the trainer’s hand and turns her head away from it.

After that, the class, which has 8 people in it, are asked to teach the dogs their first behaviour, ‘sit’, using a lure.  (Although we like to shape as much as possible in clicker training, we often start off beginning dogs – and beginning owners! – with a lured sit.)

Briefly, to lure a sit, get the dog’s attention by holding a treat in front of its nose, then slowly move the treat up just above the nose and back along the muzzle and skull towards the back of the dog’s head, keeping close to the head.  Almost all dogs will lift their head to track the treat with their nose, and as the nose goes up, the bum goes down!

Again, though, this doesn’t work too well with Annie and she repeatedly turns her head away. 

To improve the dogs’ socialisation, the class are then asked to exchange dogs and work someone else’s dog for a while.  Annie ends up with a very friendly young woman called  Gina, who makes a big fuss of her, but she doesn’t show any interest in Gina’s treats either, and keeps trying to pull away to get back to Nigel.

Nigel doesn’t feel that the class has gone too well, but the trainer tells him not to worry, and to persevere and practice at home.

During the week, Nigel does some practicing with Annie, and finds that he can get her to sit quite well if he says ‘sit’, presses her bum down and then makes a big fuss of her.  (This is how he was taught to teach his dog to sit in a class he briefly attended as a schoolboy, many years ago, but he knows that it is incorrect because it uses force.)

To complicate matters, Nigel’s friend Pete, who owns a fairly obedient but rather dull German Shepherd and fancies himself as a dog trainer, pops in for a visit during one of these sessions.  He tells Nigel that he’s not at all surprised at what is happening, that clicker training is just a silly gimmick, and that Nigel should have stuck to a choke chain and made sure that Annie knew who was boss.

At the next class, the other dogs have all made quite a lot of progress, but Annie is still ignoring her treats, seems to have forgotten her newly learned ‘sit’, and is completely uninterested in being lured into a down, this week’s new behaviour.

At this point the trainer realises that something is going awry, and starts suggesting other things that Annie might like to work for – toys, attention, affection etc – and she and Nigel try a couple of these ideas out in the class, but Annie pays even less attention, and it is now starting to look as though Nigel’s attempt to clicker train her is going to fail. 

Why?

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