Our dogs are a lot smarter than we give them credit for being! They don’t understand our language — don’t even have a concept of verbal language as we know it. WE don’t use BODY language like a dog would, and so send them lots of confusing signals. Yet, a dog who is eager to please, will somehow figure out what we want and try to do it. They use a trial-and-error system: guesswork, but it DOES work for them.
We can speed up their learning curve by teaching our dog a signal that tells them when they’ve got it right! This is the theory (or part of it) behind clicker training. Clicking at the instant the dog is DOING the behavior MARKS that behavior — it’s like pointing a finger and saying “That’s it!” If you treat every time the dog earns a “click” that signal becomes a “bridge” in the dog’s mind; the promise of a reward — a REWARD MARKER. (They’ve pushed the right button on the vending machine and they just have to wait for the candy bar to fall!) However, a clicker isn’t the only way to send that signal.
I don’t know about you, but I’m a fumble-fingers. Juggling a leash, a clicker, treats — something’s going to land on the floor. Probably all three. At the same time. Also, I don’t always have a clicker with me, in easy access. So, I prefer to use a vocal signal instead of clicking a clicker.
This isn’t quite as effective. Because a clicker always makes the same sound — pitch, duration, volume — no matter who uses it — the dog seldom has trouble recognizing the signal. When we produce a signal vocally, different people don’t sound the same, and even one person varies how they produce the sounds at different times. However, being vocal animals, we humans are most comfortable using words or vocal sounds and since we always have our mouths with us, comfort and convenience make this method best in my book.
Pick a word or a sound to be your REWARD-MARKER. You could make a tongue click, or other mouth noise — or pick a word. The word should be one you don’t use often otherwise. Most folks use YES or GOOD. I prefer YES as I often praise my dog saying, “Good Girl!” and don’t want to confuse her. The word doesn’t have to make sense — you could say “Click!” or “Jazz!” or “Green!” Just pick one word or sound and be consistent so your dog always understands you.
If you also pick a word or sound to mark when the dog tries something that ISN’T right, you double the communication happening. It’s like the kid’s game HOT AND COLD. You could play the game only saying HOT when the kid gets close to the goal, but doesn’t it work better when s/he hears COLD the instant s/he turns the wrong way? I use EH-EH or TRY AGAIN for this NO-REWARD MARKER. It’s not saying that the dog has done something bad, just telling her she’s made a wrong turn!
I trained dogs for years before learning this method. My GSD, Kita, learned her basic obedience without these aids. However, once I got my timing down, I found Kita learned about twice as fast as before. I also don’t see her getting as frustrated as she used to, either. (A little frustration is good and encourages a dog to try harder, but too much can be as stressful for a dog as it is for us!) So, though it really took ME a while to re-learn how to teach using a REWARD MARKER and a NO-REWARD MARKER, I think the time was well spent. Though I often got more than a little frustrated at having to teach this old dog (myself) new tricks, it is so much better for the dog and engages them so thoroughly in training that it was well worth the re-learning process!