Congratulations on your new dog! Naturally, you want to raise a great family dog—one that can hang with the family at home, greet guests calmly, play nicely with all the other dogs and avoid the bullies, go to the lacrosse games without pulling you onto the field of play, and maybe even charm the mother-in-law into pet-sitting when you head out on vacation.
Training your family dog using the clicker training approach is particularly family friendly. Here's why.
Everyone's a teacher
The joy and work of raising a family dog should be a great family experience. Uniquely, with clicker training, young family members grasp what to do and can easily participate. Clicker training doesn't rely on strength or physical control. Children seven and older often have an excellent sense of timing and "feel" for the process. Children as young as five or six can give cues. The very youngest children can, with their parents' help and supervision, deliver treats and praise.
Flexibility for a dynamic household
Busy family, hectic lives. That's your life. Yet, a lot of people will tell you that consistency is key to effective dog training. Huh? I suspect that if your dog can only learn in a consistent environment, you are in big trouble! Sure, if you and your family members all behave identically and have the exact same routine every day and always use the same cues, your dog will have to process less variation and will probably learn faster. But that's not your life, is it?
So, what you need is a dog that's flexible and easygoing in all kinds of environments and learns in spite of all the variation. Flexibility, not consistency, will be more important in your household because your life is full of variation. None of your kids will ask your dog to "sit" in the exact same way. But your dog ought to learn all of the ways they ask and, with clicker training, he will. One of the fun things more experienced clicker trainers like to do is "swap" dogs and show that their dog will "work" for anyone!
Clicker training's long reach
The behaviors you practice in clicker training your animal will spill over into other areas of your life and the lives of your kids. In clicker training, one focuses on creating conditions where success is possible and then builds on that success. We ignore, rather than punish, the mistakes that go on while we learn.
One of my daughters routinely thanked her elementary school teacher for providing extra comments on homework. This teacher asked me how it was that my daughter had decided to thank her for making these extra comments. Apparently, in 20 years of teaching, no student had ever taken note of the extra effort this teacher had made to write extensive and thoughtful comments on kids' homework assignments. So why did my daughter do that? She instinctively knew that if she recognized the teacher for the effort, she'd get even more helpful feedback. And, of course, she did. Clicker training at home, brought to school. You can learn even more about human-human applications of these same principles at www.tagteach.com.
The sure path to safe play
Any family dog should be "bulletproof." Kids should be able to poke him. Babies should be able to crawl by him. Understand, I am not advocating the unsupervised play of toddlers with a one-year-old Australian shepherd, or any breed. What I am saying is that your dog should be calm and tolerant of touch; he should not feel he needs to guard his food and he should be willing to share his toys. Fear and confusion in animals often lead to aggression. Boredom leads to destructive behavior.
Clicker training keeps your dog's mind engaged, which helps fend off boredom. There's no punishment so there's no training-induced fear. If your dog is temperamentally shy or fearful, you can shape his personality through clicker training to become more confident and calmer. (P.S. Any talk you hear of needing to dominate your dog and show him who is boss is pure bunk. There's no legitimate science supporting that claim. You control the rewards your dog enjoys. That's all you'll ever need.)
Build the extraordinary family bond
Most dogs are naturally people-friendly and chances are you've chosen a breed that enjoys human companionship, but you no doubt envision a relationship that's bigger than companionship. It's about loyalty, fealty, and chivalry; your dog will protect your home, watch over your kids at the playground, find your way home out of the dark woods, snuggle next to you while you're camping, give you a doggie kiss when you've had a bad day, and know to leave you alone when you have the flu. The path that gets you on track and keeps you on the path to reaching that relationship is clicker training. A deep bond with your dog will be based on mutual understanding, caring, and respect—and those values are inherent in the clicker training process.
Each time you and your family teach your dog through clicker training, you send a clear message. Over time you and your family will send thousands of messages that each help your dog understand what it is you want. In a process that's not yet well understood scientifically, the cumulative impact on your dog of all that clear and respectful communication is greater than the sum of the individual messages. Neurons make new pathways in your dog's brain, his synapses fire, and then, one day, you find yourself quite amazed and reassured that your dog now is making good decisions in ambiguous situations, that he easily enhances the world you all live in together, and that he acts to give you what you want and need without you even having to ask for it. Extraordinary.
You have a great family. Go ahead and raise a great family dog.