By: Sara Ondrako, Certified Canine Behavior Consultant
Clicker training is one of the most effective ways to help increase your timing and efficacy when it comes to teaching your dogs what specific behaviors you really like and want to see repeated. The clicker training method is very easy for anyone to learn quickly and it gives you the ability to spark fun with your dog while communicating clearly. If you have a small dog or a dog with a short attention span, this method can be especially useful for timely communication to build skills.
This article focuses on teaching the basics step by step so that you can master the concept and try it out with your puppy or dog. If you find that you and your dog really get into this and want to learn more to advance your skills, bookmark this article and follow this link to the Karen Pryor Clicker Training Academy for more in-depth training classes using clickers. You can also hire a professional dog trainer that specializes in clicker training to get a hands-on learning experience.
Before diving into the “how”, it’s helpful to know some of the “why” as it pertains to choosing clicker training. With the rise of the force-free movement on the dog training industry front, you’ve probably started hearing more and more about this method which LIMA dog trainers use to incorporate strictly positive reinforcement for shaping desired behaviors or skills in dogs. More and more dog owners are now jumping on board with positive reinforcement methods themselves. Positive reinforcement simply means to add in a reinforcer when they do what you like. Reinforcers are what motivates your dog - the things that he or she likes such as a food treat, toys, verbal praise, tug, and so on. In clicker training, the positive reinforcement part is specifically a treat and the click sound means that reinforcer is coming. Positive reinforcement is one of the four training quadrants, of what is called, Operant Conditioning. The clicker training technique hangs out in just one of the four training quadrants so we’ll focus solely on that one for the purposes of this article.
This training method is particularly useful with small dogs and puppies. In training, timing needs to be precise to effectively communicate. Small dogs are often hard to get to with a reward quickly due to distance from the handler to the dog’s face. Puppies are also excellent candidates since they tend to have a very short attention span as they exhibit so many behaviors so quickly, making it challenging to reward exactly the behavior that you are looking for. This specific training process makes that timing and reaching that small dog or puppy with the needed speed, much easier.
Clicker trainers often recommend this method for dog owners that talk to their dogs or direct their dogs with their voices a lot. We use our voices for so many things - to tell them we like what they are doing, to tell them we don’t like what they are doing, to call them, to interrupt a behavior, and even just to talk to them while petting them. Having a distinct sound that only ever means one thing - you’re going to get a treat! - can help them filter out other sounds or background noises that may otherwise distract them and make it difficult to respond to your voice. Think of the clicker as your marker word, only more distinct.
What is a clicker and how does it work exactly?
A dog training clicker is a small handheld nonelectric device that makes a clicking sound when you press the button. They are traditionally made with a small metal strip inside of a plastic box or container which gives it the distinctive “click” sound when the button is depressed. Clickers with a wristband or fingerstrap from Petsafe are two of the most popular clicker designs. You can find a variety of these on Amazon and with Amazon Prime, can start clicker training within a day or two.
Clicker training involves using the sound of this device, the “click”, to mark the desired behavior that you want to see repeated. For example, when teaching “sit” and the dog sits, you would click at the exact moment that the dog’s hind end hits the ground and present a reward to indicate that action as being the behavior that you were looking for.
Introduce Your Dog to The Clicker
First impressions matter so let your dog be a part of the unboxing process to spark curiosity. When the package arrives with your new clicker (or you bring it home from the pet store), use a higher happy tone to encourage your dog to sniff it out. Take a moment to push it around and play with it. Drop a treat or two down while your dog sniffs the new fun thing.
Next, get your dog treats ready! Start with high-value treats, meaning something your dog really loves like turkey hearts or salmon treats. Have a handful ready to go.
How to Start Clicker Training
Once first impressions have gone off without a hitch, it’s time to get clicking!
Place the clicker behind your back for the first couple of times that you click. This helps muffle the sound just slightly. If your dog is a bit sensitive to the click sound and needs to get used to it, the fun thing that you just pulled out of the package can remain the fun thing (in terms of sight) if the sound startles them at first. Most dogs are not startled by the sound but it does happen occasionally as some are noise-sensitive.
1. Click, then immediately (less than one second) deliver the treat to your dog - aim for the dog’s nose to flood their primary sense with the smell before they enjoy their reward. Speed is important here so be ready to have the treat delivered instantly following the click. Repeat this 15 times.
2. Now we’ll slow it down to keep focus longer. Click, then count to one, and then deliver the treat. Repeat 10 times.
3. Let’s slow it down even further. Click, count to three, then deliver the treat. Repeat 5 times.
4. Your dog should now associate the clicking noise with a treat. Now ask for a behavior and first start by practicing with only one cue such as asking and marking “sit”, to help with the association process between the behavior, the click, and the reward. When your dog performs the behavior, immediately click and instantly deliver the treat to the dog with the speed you used in Step 1. Repeat 5 times.
5. Ask for a behavior, when your dog performs the cue, immediately click, then count to one, then deliver the reward. Repeat 5 times.
6. Ask for a behavior, at the exact moment they are performing the desired behavior, click, then count to 3, then reward. Repeat 3 times.
7. Try this in different locations, first under little to no distractions and then slowly increase distractions while asking a behavior of your dog (or marking a particular behavior that you like). Each time you change the environment or increase distractions (other dogs, other people, fast-moving objects, etc.) start at Step 1 and work from there so that your dog can easily click in with the game and is more likely to succeed in busier environments. As your dog gets really good at this, you can skip steps 1,2, & 3.
- If your dog is on supplements like Calm Chews or Relief Chews, these cut-up really easily into smaller pieces and make great treats to use for clicker training. Size doesn’t matter for treats - taste does - so cut them up to make them last longer.
- Repetitions are your friend - your dog will do what your dog is well-practiced at so the more you practice and get those reps in, the more responsive to the training your dog will be.
- Reduce some of their food initially so as not to give them too many extra calories while training. Once they are familiar with clicker training, you can mix some of their kibble into your treat pouch and slowly lessen the high-value treats.
- Use treats that don’t take a long time to eat. Using textured treats like freeze-dried minnows is fun for other training activities, however, with clicker training, it’s easier to keep your dog focused and engaged on the exercise when moving at a faster pace - treat eating included.
- When starting new training sessions, “charge” the clicker, meaning, start back with Step 2: click - treat - click - treat, a few times to get your dog fired up and ready to participate!
- If your dog or puppy hasn’t learned any cues yet, you can also practice clicker training by marking a specific good behavior that you want your dog to repeat, such as sitting in front of you instead of jumping on you for engagement. Dog behavior, not just obedience skills, can also be reinforced using clicker training!
- If you are not prepared to reward with a treat - don’t click. If the dog looks away before you have a chance to deliver the reward, deliver it anyway so as not to confuse what the sound means. When you are starting out, you are building the association of the sound meaning a reward is coming and if a reward does not come with that sound, it will begin to lose reliability in terms of what it means to your dog.
- Every dog is different and at different points in their learning journey. If they aren’t picking up on what you are trying to communicate, then take it a step back to make it easier, repeat that step, then slowly increase the difficulty.
Whether you are looking to teach your old dog new tricks, a rescued dog basic commands (cues) or just starting your puppy training journey, using clicker training can streamline the reward process to help you efficiently reinforce good behavior that you want to see repeated.