Q: I've successfully clicker trained my dogs in the past, but I now have a retriever who's scared of the clicker. The sound bothered him at first, and now he won't respond to anything I've tried—he heads for the hills as soon as I take the clicker out. What can I do?
A: Some dogs do find the clicker sound startling, and therefore alarming, at first. Once they understand a) that click means treats and b) that they can make you click, the fear goes away; it's just a beginner problem. However, it's hard for the dog to make that connection if it's hiding under the bed. Here are some ways through this initial little mishap:
- Get a keychain flashlight at the drug store—the kind that you squeeze to turn on. Then you can use a blink instead of the click.
- Try the i-Click, which is quieter than other clickers. It doesn't have those sharp harmonics that make the standard clicker so ringing in tone.
- The brand new clicker, the Clicker+, has different sounds and volumes. There may be a combination that your dog likes better.
- Or use a push pen or pocket stapler without staples.
With any of these, rather than trying to desensitize the dog by clicking at random, try to make the connections very clear. Click when you put the dog's dinner down. Click when you open the door to take the dog out. Click, of course, when you hand the dog any treat.
Have a click session: prepare some really sensational food in tiny bits, pea-size; 20-50 treats. Make sure the dog is really hungry—right before dinner maybe. Give the dog a free treat so he knows what he's going to be getting. Take the dog in the bathroom, with its dinner dish. Put the treats where you can reach them. Shut the door. Don't look at the dog, don't point the clicker or flashlight at him, keep your click (or blink) hand still. Click and drop a treat in the dog's dish. Repeat two or three times. If he eats the treat, great, you're off and running. If he cowers away from you in apparent terror (my owner has gone crazy) it only means he's totally misinterpreting this situation. The best way to calm him down is to explain it. Pay no attention, click, treat (in the dish--that's where food goes) a few more times. Don't stare at him!
Let him think it over. You can push the dish next to him if he won't budge. Pause. Read a magazine. If/when he eats the treats out of the bowl, or if he doesn't, click, get up, drop a few more treats on the floor, open the door, and leave. Lesson is over. Ignore the dog for a while. I bet he'll sneak back in and eats those treats. If there's another dog in the house, or a cat, let that animal go into the bathroom and clean up the treats—your reluctant dog will definitely notice that rude behavior, and it's very motivating for the next round. You can give him his dinner—one click as you put the dish down—after all this.
Here's a variation: If he still did not eat the treats, the next night you might try it in the kitchen or wherever you normally feed him. Tether the dog by his leash to the kitchen table or something; we don't want him to cop out of the learning opportunity by leaving the room.
Click and drop treats in his bowl in the usual dinner location six or eight times. You are not letting him get the treats, just letting him watch you putting them in his bowl (no other pets or people in the room, please). Keep an eye on him. If he does anything at all—steps forward, or sits, or even glances at the dish—click while he's moving, and then drop the treat in the bowl. Before he's even eating the treats you can make the association between action on the part of the dog and delivery of the click.
Don't overdo the "unreachable treats" process; that would be unfair. Five or six repeats is plenty. If he starts to bark or strain toward the bowl, great. He's got the idea. Shove the bowl within reach of the dog, put the clicker away, and let him eat. If he's still hesitant, shove the bowl over to him when there's five treats in it, and let him eat. Or, unleash him, and leave him alone in the kitchen with the bowl.
You're learning all the time, too. How to deliver treats fast, and right after each click (not before). How to observe your dog and see changes in his behavior rather than just trying to draw conclusions about it. These first lessons are good for both ends of the loop.
Really, that should do it.