The clicker is a small hand-held device that makes a distinct, short sound to mark a desired behavior. (See clicker training for a more detailed discussion of this methodology.) It has gained popularity in recent years as being a means of training that does not involve physically correcting the dog, though it may be used in conjunction with these methods.
The fur is flying, the noise is at a decibel I've never experienced before and the desire to win is so thick you can feel it. This is agility competition for dogs and Fiona, my soon to be athlete, and I are on the sidelines of an agility competition taking notes. Dogs of every breed, size and shape are jumping hurdles, running up A-frames, scampering across elevated walkways and diving through tunnels. So as not to get lost on the course, each dog is in constant eye contact with their owner who gives directions through hand signals and one-word prompts.
The best type of dog training for both you and your dog depends on the outcomes you hope to achieve. If you want your dog to learn agility training, go to someone who specializes in those techniques. Regardless of whether you want your dog to learn basic behavior or competitive-level tricks, the majority of dog training is actually about training the owner how to communicate with their dog. Most professional dog trainers agree that a model of training based on positive reinforcement breeds a happy, healthy, well-adjusted dog. The alternative to positive reinforcement training is using force or aggression techniques like physical punishment or shock-collar training to get the dog to do (or not do) a behavior. While the dog may learn how to behave as you direct, it is also learning to communicate with force and aggression, and will in turn use those behaviors on other dogs (or people) that are smaller or weaker than it is. Before signing up with a dog trainer, meet with the trainer and ask for references. Watch the trainer interact with your dog, and make sure they treat your dog with patience and firm kindness. Ask them questions about their training methods:
If a dog has a clean run without any faults, it’s called a qualifying run or a “Q,” and they’ll get points added to their official record. If they get a good score, they may also receive a placement ribbon. Winning a first place is a lot of fun, but in the grand scheme of things placements don’t matter until you reach high levels of competition. However, the Qs are important – with enough points, your dog will earn a title. A title is a certificate of accomplishment. As you earn each title you stick it to the end of your dog’s name, so Fido’s name can eventually start to look like Jonas’s. Very snazzy.
Weave Poles: This one might be the most exciting element to watch a dog complete, but can be one of the most challenging to train for. If you’ve ever seen a ski slalom race, you already have a good idea of what the dog will need to do to get through this obstacle. Several vertical poles are set up in a row and the dog must weave its way back and forth between them in a snake-like fashion.
Dogs that demonstrate the previously mentioned basic skills, as well as walking reasonably well on a leash and a few other minor tasks, can be tested for and earn the American Kennel Club's (AKC) Canine Good Citizen certification. While not a competitive obedience title, a CGC certification demonstrates that the dog is sociable, well behaved, and reliable in public settings. Some insurance companies will waive breed restrictions on dogs with CGCs, and many states have passed resolutions supporting and encouraging CGC certification as a yardstick for canine manners and responsible dog ownership.
But wait, there’s more! Agility gives you something cool to do with your dog. This is important if you have a hard time getting your dog to do what you say. It teaches Fido that you are lots of fun and worth listening to. Compare this to another common activity for dogs: the dog park. At the dog park, you let him off leash and he goes off to do his own thing. Returning to you is no fun because it means he has to go home. You’re not Fido’s best buddy. You’re his chauffeur.
Changing behavior takes time. You need to have realistic expectations about changing your dog’s behavior as well as how long it will take to change behaviors that you don’t like. Often behaviors which are “normal” doggie behaviors will take the most time such as barking, digging and jumping. You also need to consider how long your dog has rehearsed the behavior. For example, if you didn’t mind that your dog jumped up on people to say hi for the last seven years and now you decide that you don’t want him to do that anymore, that behavior will take a much longer time to undo than if you had addressed it when he was a pup. Remember it’s never too late to change the behavior some will just take longer than others.