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Raising the Great Family Dog

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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

happy family dog

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!

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.

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.)

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.


About the author
User picture

Aaron Clayton is President of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and TAGteach International, and a member of the ClickerExpo Faculty.

Aussie Puppy

I recently got a 10 week old australian shepherd puppy,  he is pretty good around most people (a little shy but allows people to pet him) but somtimes he growls at people when they pet him.  I have tried to look for patterns (kids, people with hats, sunglasses, etc.)  but I haven't seen any so far.  Any suggestions on how I could use clicker training to stop the growling? 

clicker training

"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." 

Don't get me wrong, I do not believe in dominating or bullying an animal into submission (and calling that "training").  But I would like to know where the legitimate science is that supports clicker training?




Aaron B. Clayton's picture

Thanks for your note. Clicker

Thanks for your note.

Clicker training is a popular phrase for positive operant conditioning using a marker.
Operant conditioning is well-established part of the field of behavioral science so you can begin your reading
by reading up on operant conditioning, BF Skinner and so forth. For a three day intensive,  I recommend the Foundation curriculm at ClickerExpo (www.clickerexpo.com).  You will also find some of the latest science and scientific papers about markers in the book and on the webiste Reaching the Animal Mind (www.reachingtheanimalmind.com). Happy reading!

Karen Pryor's picture

Clicker training and science

Clicker training is a user-friendly nickname for what technically might be described as

operant conditioning utilizing the conditioned positive reinforcer as a marker signal.

Operant conditioning and related processes such as shaping, stimulus control, and schedules

of reinforcement are all phenomena first identified by B.F. Skinner and his associates and

students. The scientific field that developed from this research is known as behavior analysis.

For an in-depth view of behavior analysis, with references, you might like to read Behavior Analysis for

Effective Teaching, by Julie Vargas. For a current update on the science underlying clicker training and animals,

including the neuroscience relating to reinforcement and brain function, see my newest book, Reaching

the Animal Mind (Scribner 2009.)

Karen Pryor



question/border collie

Hi!  I have a 5 year old Border Collie on my farm and we love her to death.  She is a pretty well behaved dog, but one thing I have noticed she does is curl her lip up at some people.  Is this an aggressive action?  She doesn't snarl or growl, it is basically kind of just a raised front lip.  What are your thoughts?  Thank you.  S.

The Weakest Link

We have a 10 week old Border Collie who we have had for one week.

She is settling in well, toilet training is happening relatively successfully, she is happy in her crate both during the night and for sleeps during the day, she has picked up commands 'sit' 'come' 'wait' 'off' and 'quiet' already really quickly too and seems very intelligent.

The only issue we have at the moment is that she seems to be picking on my 3 year old daughter, in that whenever my daughter walks across the room the puppy bounds up to her, jumps up, hounds her and if she can get a nip in she certainly does. We have taught my daughter to say command 'off' and treat her, which the puppy does but as soon as the treat is eaten, she jumps back up and goes for more hounding and nipping. She has responded really well to my 6 year old daughter and obeys her commands and is much more calm around her. Can you offer me some advice as it is serioiusly compromising my little one's freedom around the house and negatively shaping her impressions of owning a dog.





Nipping in a working dog is a sign of herding. The older child is bigger, but the youngest is a prime target

AT the farm we run into the same problem, the command we use is 'outside' which is basically back off, and go to the side and stop. THe treating is rewarding the herding. We reward after the dog has stayed at the outside for about 5 min, or when he comes around and does nothing....

You want to teach them to 'herd' only on command

New Puppy

I have a new puppy 12 weeks old for 2 days now. I was reading your site and decided to try the clicker training. I have the clicker (from Walmart). Is it too late to train her to one potty place in the yard if I've just been putting her down for the past 2 days and she's gone anywhere? I really want to do this right. We have a 3 year old, Sunny, that we are slowly introducing the puppy Lucy to. Sunny is a little jealous, especially when we are indoors. She growls pretty strongly at the puppy if she get's too close. It's early and Sunny is a great dog and has gotten along with others. 2 days is alittle early for miracles!! Anyway, as I said, I really want to do this right. Lucy is doing great in her crate. She only cried the first evening for about 15 minutes. She is really smart and I just want to get her off on the right start. Thank you.

How to kid proof a dog?

My dog is afraid of kids (I don't have any to help train him). How can I use clicker training to help him over come this? My dog is a 8-month old pug.

Aaron B. Clayton's picture

Kid proof a dog

Overcoming fear and shyness in your puppy around kids is really important and its great you recognize this. When you have learned the basics of clicker training you can set very simple training goals that will teach him that being around kids is a good thing. For example, one goal might be just to have kids be near him. Click and reinforce for letting kids in closer proximity to your calm(not growling) pug. In other word, only reinforce him if his behavior is calm.Make sure kids, at the beginning, are at a distance your pug has indicated is safe and comfortable. You will be able to shorten the distance between the two as your history of reinforcement with your pug for this calm behavior deepens. A follow on goal might be to tolerate gentle petting. Click and reinforce for allowing any touch. A third goal might be taking food from kids. Assuming the pug is not aggressive, a kid can be the "source" who delivers the reinforcement that follows a click. And so on. Rememeber, if these are your kids, and they are old enough, they can be clicking and treating for any positve interaction with the family pug . That by itself will change the relationship! A great book you can reference for dogs exhibiting reactivity is Click to Calm, by Emma Parsons. See the store section of the site.



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