clicker training for dogs

About Clicker Training

It wasn’t until Karen Pryor’s seminal book; Don’t Shoot the Dog (published in 1985) that the concepts of clicker (or marker) training made its way into the toolbox of pet/ domestic animal trainers. Over the past 27 years, trainers of animals from tiny to huge have embraced the principles of clicker training – because no other training model works as well or offers the emotional and mental satisfaction for animal and trainer than clicker training does

Marker training is now widely used in zoos and aquariums, barns and animal shelters to teach many different species how to successfully interact with their human keepers. Clicker training works with household pets as insignificant as fish, mice and hamsters, as well as it does with large and dangerous wildlife such as lions, bears and killer whales without the use of force, coercion or pain.

clicker training langleyThe clicker that trainers use today has evolved from a toy noisemaker, but anything that makes a clean, unique and audible sound will work as a marker. For deaf animals, or for fish, a flashlight can serve as a visual marker.

The first thing a trainer does is pair the sound of the click with something the animal likes and will work to get – most commonly food treats, but sometimes a toy, affection, or a game (like tug or catch) until the animal understands that the sound of the click will always be followed by a reward. The second thing a trainer does is click something the animal already does naturally (like sit or lie down) and then immediately follow-up with a reward. It doesn’t take the animal very long to figure out that something he is doing is causing the trainer to click and deliver food.

The click becomes a marker that tells the animal, in the instant of movement, what it has done that the trainer likes and will reward. This is very exciting for the animal – suddenly, he has an affect on his world; he can cause his trainer to give him a treat! One of the most rewarding parts of clicker training is seeing the little light go on when the animal “gets it!”

Training becomes a fun game – an avenue of communication between the animal and trainer. The clicker technique is so rewarding for both the animal and the trainer that it is rapidly becoming the training method of choice for animal loving trainers.

How to Start Clicker Training

You need:
- A clicker
- A pouch to hold your treats
- A variety of tasty treats (see Good Treats for Dogs on the Resources page)
- An animal or person

Before you begin, it is important to develop you mechanical skills without your dog (or other animal). Clicking effectively takes some hand eye coordination – for practice exercises, check out Tia Guest’s article, “How to Practice Clicker Mechanics” on the Resources page. You might also want to enroll in my Monday evening Clicker Mechanics course.

Once you’ve built up your clicker skills, try “charging the clicker” with your dog (or cat, or hamster.) This is how you teach your pet to associate the click sound with a reward. Grab a handful of tic-tac sized treats; click and drop a treat close to your pet’s body. Repeat 10-15 times then take a short break. Repeat this 2 or 3 more times. Test to see if the clicker is charged: when your dog is relaxing across the room from you, click. Does your dog look at you with his ears perked up and trot over to receive his treat? If he does, then the clicker is charged and you can begin using it for training. If not, charge the clicker for a few more short sessions.

Some dogs are afraid of the sound a loud clicker makes: if your dog startles when you click, first make sure you aren’t holding the clicker close to your dog’s head: don’t point it at your dog, he’s not a garage door! To muffle the click sound, you can try holding the clicker behind your back; you can muffle the tongue of the clicker with some Mac-Tac (like silly putty) or put the clicker in a sock or mitten. If it’s still too loud, try clicking the top of a pen or a Snapple lid instead.

Whatever you click, the one hard and fast rule is: if you click you must treat (1-2 seconds after the click)! Even if you clicked by mistake, you treat. Think of the clicker as your dog’s promise of a paycheck – clicking without treating is like having your paycheck bounce…how often would you let this happen before you wouldn’t you go back to work on Monday?

Now What?

Now that your clicker is charged, choose a behavior to focus on. Think about “capturing” a behavior as if you were taking a photograph of your dog – the click of the clicker is like the click of the shutter. You’re going to “take a picture” of a behavior (or behaviors) you like as your dog offers them. For example, you might click just as your dog sits (don’t forget to deliver a treat within 1-2 seconds after you click!) If your click is late, you missed the picture – click just as your dog sits, not after. Throw the treat a little ways from the dog so he has to get up to get it – this is called resetting the dog; now that he’s standing wait for him to offer a sit again and – quick – click and reward again. And again. And again.Once the dog is offering a sit reliably, say 8 times out of 10, you may begin adding a cue. Say, “sit” just as your dog’s butt lowers toward the ground, then click when he sits and reward. If he offers a hesitant lowering of his butt, click and reward anyway – he is trying to make the association between the word and the behavior.

Once he is responding to the “sit” cue reliably, start practicing the sit in other rooms of your house, and as he gets good at it, practice outside too, until your dog will respond to the cue reliably in a number of different environments, even at a distance.

Train one behavior per training session and keep the sessions short (1-5 minutes) but try to fit in several per day. It’s easy, you don’t have to set aside time to train, you can practice when you give your dog his dinner, let him out to play in the yard, or during a commercial or whenever you have a minute to focus – short and sweet and end on a good (successful) note. Make it fun – it is fun!

It’s axiomatic that behaviors that are rewarded will get stronger and behaviors that are not rewarded will get weaker and fade away – this is true no matter what animal is doing the behavior, even a human animal. The more your reward the behaviors you want the stronger they will get and the more often and quicker the animal will perform them.

Try to catch you dog (or cat, or hamster, or kid…) doing something right or good 50 times a day; place a clicker in a bowl of treats in every room in your house and when you see your dog lying down quietly, click and treat. When you see your dog sitting nicely at the door, click and treat. The more often you “catch”/”click” him doing it right, the more often he will do it. Look for what you do want, catch him doing it right, catch him doing something cute; catch him being anything but “bad” and watch how fast he changes.

Question & Answer
Q: Is using a clicker as a marker different from saying a word, like “yes”?

Yes it is, for several reasons.

A clicker is more accurate and faster than a spoken word. People may not notice that it is, especially when their mechanical skills are not what they should be, but a clicker is processed by the animal’s mind much more quickly than a word and it serves to mark the exact moment/movement that you want to capture.

A click sound is unique to the dog’s environment. They hear our voices a lot, but the click is unique, distinct, clear and consistent. You can – and will – say the word “yes” with hundreds of different inflection, depending on your mood. Your dog is finally attuned to your mood and so the word “yes” is no neutral – no matter how hard you try to make it so. The sound of the clicker carries no emotional baggage and always predicates a treat.

If you doubt the merits of a click over a word, watch your dog when he hears the click. Watch the reaction in his face, his ear position, his mouths, and his whole body. He KNOWS the game – he’s succeeded in making you click. The excitement on his faces is amazing, and rewarding to you.

Once the dog has mastered a behavior or a trick it is possible to replace the click with a verbal “yes” to acknowledge the successful completion of an already acquired skill.

Q: Do you keep using a clicker and treats even after the animal knows the behavior?

No, the clicker is a teaching tool for new behaviors. Once the behavior is on cue (the dog is offering the behavior in response to a word or gesture at least 8 times out of 10 in most environments and under most circumstances) then the clicker is no longer needed and you can gradually wean your dog off treats as a reward by substituting play and life rewards (like allowing him to go chase a squirrel!)

Q: Do real Clicker Trainers ever use punishment?

No! Even though some behaviors are very hard to change, punishment and pain are never the solution to behavior problems. Choke chains, shock collars, prong collars, even popping the leash or jerking the harness are perceived as punishment by the dog. At worst, punishment can worsen behavior problems, and best, punishment will certainly damage the relationship between you and your dog.

Real clicker trainers focus on what they want the dog to do, instead of the unwanted behavior. They use a combination of management (preventing the dog from having an opportunity to practice unwanted behaviors) distraction (giving the dog something else [pleasurable] to focus on or think about) and training of incompatible behaviors (a dog cannot jump on you and sit at the same time.)

Not all trainers who use clickers are clicker trainers. Real clicker trainers use the principles of classical and operant conditioning to help the animal chose to make a better (in our estimation) choice. There is no room for emotional or punitive reactions in clicker training.

For more information about Clicker Training please go to the resources page.