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Clicker Training for Heeling

My male Cavalier has suddenly started sniffing and mounting my female a lot. ie: many times a day. He does it around the house and also when on leash on a walk. If we stop to chat with someone in the park or have company he is sure to do it. Chloe is just over 3- spayed at 10 mo. Finbar is just over 2 -neutered at 10 mo.

Clicker Training (CT) is an excellent way to teach heel. It has many advantages over leash training or luring. For one thing, you can train the behavior best off leash! Once the dog has it down, you can then put a leash on if that's required for your obedience course.

The leash won't matter to the dog at all. A leash is not at all needed to train heel. And when you train without and then add the leash, the dog will often perform very impressively because the leash means nothing to it, and you will always have a slack leash and will not need to leash correct the dog. This looks great to judges! Also if you go to an AKC competition, they have an Open category in which the dog must heel off leash, but hey, yours already does that!

If you are interested in pursuing Obedience further using a clicker, I highly recommend the book Clicker Training for Obedience by Morgan Spector. VERY detailed discussion and instructions for each skill! Good intro on the basics of CT, too.

> I'm luring him with food, and praising him everytime he comes on my left and food treat him, then he wanders too far to the left, so I lure him with a pat on my leg, say heel, then treat him, etc.

Luring is used sometimes in CT, but only as a "starter." I would not continue to use luring once the dog gets the idea of what you want him to do or he will become too food oriented and sooner or later may not perform unless you have the food and have it visible. The pat on the leg, on the other hand, is fine. It is not technically a "lure" but is a cue or command.

The problem with training as you describe above, without a clicker, is that when you reward the dog, the reward is not directly tied to the wanted behavior. The reward comes seconds after the behavior, and the dog is not certain exactly what part of the behavior he is being rewarded for.

In CT, you click the instant the dog has completed the behavior you wanted. You then don't have to be in any hurry to get the treat out of your pocket. The timing of the treat is not important--give it a second later, ten seconds later... doesn't matter. But the click must coincide exactly with the completion or end of the desired behavior. The click performs two important functions. It identifies to the dog exactly what the behavior you wanted was, and it acts as a signal (we call it a bridge) that tells the dog, "You did that well. A reward is coming."

When first starting, its good to "charge the clicker" by doing a simple exercise with the dog. Just click and then give him a treat. Click again and give a treat. Repeat 10-20 times per session. Do several sessions a day for a couple days. Also start clicking every time you feed him dinner or give a treat or dog biscuit. This will condition the dog to expect a reward when it hears a click.

Now luring becomes unnecessary because the dog is working not directly to get the food you are waving in front of it, but it is working to hear that click which always predicts an immediate reward! Once you've charged your clicker, never click without rewarding, and never again reward without clicking. You ar enow ready to start using the clicker to train.

> I find it frustrating because I suppose I don't see the great need of him being stuck on my leg when I walk.

I can sympathize. I don't even teach most of my own five dogs to heel because it is a worthless skill for someone who is not interested in Obedience competition and who lives in the woods and rarely takes the dog into populated areas.

On the other hand, there are two reasons to teach the heel. First, it is just one of the required skills of the dog sport known as Obedience. Although you may not see a pratical need for it, it is an accomplishment to take pride in, and a training experience that continues to help bond you with your dog. If you live in a city or take the dog out in public, it is also a practical skill that can be used when around people that do not wish to have a dog near them. Keeping your dog near your side can also be an important safety measure for the dog, such as if you are standing near or crossing a busy road.

> MY QUESTION then is... can you clicker train him to heel?

As I mentioned already, absolutely. Far superior to leash training which--to put it bluntly--consists of tugging on the dog's neck and relies on control rather than partnership!

> I believe that if I waited for him to come to my left side, I'd be waiting all day. And for him to walk beside me because "he wants to" will just not happen as he's never had to with such precision before.

This is a mistaken notion that many who don't understand Clicker Training have. What you describe, waiting for the dog to come to your side, is called the Capture Method. Although many trainers believe it is in the long run the best method because it seems to burn the behavior into the dog's memory better, there are other ways to begin training a behavior besides waiting for the dog to sponaneously make the right move.

By the way, by doing a little planning and thinking, you can often set things up so that even though you are using the Capture Method, the dog will find the behavior pretty quickly.

For example, for heel, you can stand with your left side a few feet away from a wall, and then put a chair or a big box or some obstacle on your right side so the dog cannot get near you on the right. Starting with the dog behind you, you then wait. Since the dog cannot approach you closely on the right, and since there is only a couple feet between your left side and the wall, although the dog will be acting spontaneously, without any luring or help, the chances are it will end up at your left side fairly soon because it will want to be in front of you.

As soon as it is alongside you on the left, you click and treat. So by moving furniture, using barriers of various sorts, or just by positioning your body in a certain way, you can often make the desired behavior happen faster because you have limited some of the wrong choices for the dog.

Even if you do just sit and wait, without any set-up tricks, it often takes much less time for the dog to stumble on the behavior than you would think. There is a CT technique called "Shaping" or "successive approximation" which can speed the process.

For example, instead of waiting and waiting for the dog to stand exactly where it should at your left side, you might start clicking and treating (C & T) if the dog wonders ANYWHERE to the left of your body--whether he is in front of you, behind you, ten feet away, etc.

After a few sessions of this, he will probably tend to head for your left side often. You then "raise the bar" and expect a little closer approximation of the final desired position by maybe only clicking now if he is on the left and within a few degrees of directly alongside you, not in front or behind you. After he seems to have that down and heads for a spot near your left side, you can start expecting that he must be within four feet of you, or he does not get the C & T. Then you raise the bar again and expect that he must be within 2 feet, etc.

So do not think that you must wait until the dog spontaneously offers the exact behavior you want.

You break his approach to the perfect behavior down into smaller steps--closer and closer--until you end up only C & Ting if he does a true stationary heel. (You always want to teach a stationary heel position before adding the motion.)

I mentioned that the waiting game, or Capture Method, is NOT the only way to get a behavior started. Here's a quick desciption of a few other apporaches, all legit purist CT techniques.

1) Elicited Behavior: You can use a hand signal, body motions, or other cues to try to show the dog what you want it to do. (Your use of slapping your leg to call him close is an example.) Although theoretically some believe the Capture approach is the most powerful, the results from Eliciting Behavior are very reliable also. (There are also some behaviors that you just can't Capture, so another technique MUST be used.)

The only rules in Eliciting Behavior are:

A) Make the cues as few and small as possible, just enought to be effective.
B) Do not use a food lure. Luring is an entirely different method.
C) Speaking is OK, but keep it minimal, like just calling the dog by name.
D) Use the Elicit Behavior method ONLY to get the ball rolling.

Once the dog understands and is repeating the behavior, phase out the signals or cues and expect the dog to now initiate the behavior spontaneously, with no movement or words from you.

2) Targeting: This is one of the most powerful and useful methods to treat any behavior that involves the dog moving. It would be the preferred method for working on the moving heel. Basically, you use a stick of some sort (the manufactured ones look like thick magic wands) and teach the dog in a separate exercise to touch his nose to the end of the wand. You can make a target stick of your own out of household objects. I take the inner cardboard core from a roll of paper towels and put some vinyl tape around the last two inches of one end.

A target stick has one end that you hold, and a "business end" which is where you want the dog to touch its nose--the tape in my version of the stick.

An easy way to get started is to buy a jar of beef baby food. Or use peanut butter if your dog loves it. Put a nice dab on the business end of the target stick and then just stand there with the stick pointing out in front of you at a height the dog can easily reach. Stand like a statue and give no commands. We are going to use the Capture Method. Wait silently until the dog comes over and licks the tasty stuff off the end of the stick. C & T! Your dog has just targeted for the first time! Repeat over and over until the dog responds quickly and touches the stick every time.

(Another variation that you can do for variety if you use my paper towel target stick is to put a solid treat inside the end of the tube. When the dog's nose touches the tip of the stick, let the tip drop downward and the treat will fall out. Surprise! Gradually reduce the amount of baby food or peanut butter that you put on the stick until it is just a teeny dab.)

Start varying it so that sometimes the baby food or whatever is there and other times the stick is clean with no treat on it.
Then start using a clean stick with no food on it all the time. But always C & T every time the dog's nose touches the first few inches of the stick.

There are a few final steps to making the target stick work as a univeral training tool. First, start varying its position. Sometimes hold it to your left side. Sometimes to the right. Sometimes a little high so the dog must leap up a bit to touch it. Throw it on a chair or bed and see if you can get the dog to touch it there. (This is a big change because up til now you have always helds it.) Hold it between your knees! Work with it in another room, or while you are sitting, or outside. This is called Generalizing or Proofing. You want the dog to go for the stick wherever it is.

The next stage of Proofing is to add distractions. So have someone bouncing a ball while you offer the stick. Play music. Have another dog in the room. And so on. Now--almost done--you add motion. Put that stick out there and when the dog goes for it, move it slowly away so he cannot touch it. He will follow the stick. Start by just moving it a foot and let him catch it. C & T. Work slowly up to longer distances, until the dog will follow you many feet without giving up. To complete the target training, start using a command before you present the target stick. I just say TARGET. Train this until the dog will respond to the command and touch his nose to the end of the stick reliably and immediately.


You now have a powerful tool that you can use to lead the dog through the most complicated of behaviors! You can use it forever to simplifiy clicker training many behaviors. Back to heeling: Stand anywhere, and drop the target stick so the tip is at your left hip, and give the command, TARGET.

When the dog touches the stick, C & T. I don't think I need to explain much more. The dog will go where the stick goes.

So to start a moving heel, put the stick in a position so that when the dog's nose is almost touching the tip the dog is in proper heel position, and then lead him with the stick as you walk. It's like the old "carrot and stick." C & T after every success, and gradually extend the distance you walk before C & Ting.

What if he does not succeed?

Whenever you CT and the dog does not do the correct thing, just ignore it. Don't comment on it. NEVER punish or criticize the dog.

It's simply: Succeed = C & T. Fail = No reaction.

You're still a good dog. Let's try again.

About luring: Some Clicker Trainers do use a food lure to get an activity started. For example, one is often used to teach Sit. But when using a lure, only use it to get the activity going. Get rid of it as soon as possible. Also, when you are CTing any activity, keep the food reward hidden the whole time until after the click! If the treat is visible, you are Luring, whether you know it or not.

Well, short of writing a book, that ought to be enough to give you an idea of what CT is about and some specific exercises to try for teaching heel. And I hope you see that waiting for hours is not necessary! Good luck.

There are lots of CT sites on the web you can visit where you can read articles, and get specific instructions on how to train particular activites, as well as buy books and clickers.

Among the sites listed below, you can probably find a link to half of the CT websites on the Internet!

Karen Pryor's Site A nice page with links

Introductions to Clicker Training

Dog-Play Clicker Links


Gary Wilkes's CT Page

Webring- A page that will get you into a webring of dozens of CT sites.

A good mailing list in CT.

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