Clicker training for dogs is a positive reinforcement training method widely used by professional trainers and owners alike. It is an alternative to aversive training that trains away unwanted behaviors by punishing and intimidating the dog.
Our family did not know of clicker training until we had our third dog, a handsome Jack Russel Terrier. Before him, we had only used food-based reward training, and we did encounter times when we felt that our dogs did not understand what we wanted from them.
However, when we chanced upon clicker training and tried it with our Jack Russel Terrier, we never looked back. We found that communication between dogs and humans could be more precise than expected, using a method with scientific backings and positive experiences.
Therefore, in this post, I will be introducing to you the following:
- What is clicker training?
- Why should you choose clicker training?
- How should you introduce the clicker to your dog?
- Some helpful clicker training tips
What Is Clicker Training?
A clicker is a device consisting of a piece of metal strip encased in a small plastic box that will make a loud ‘click’ sound when it is pressed. Some clickers have a button to assist with pressing the metal strip.
Clicker training uses positive reinforcement through a clicker and its association with reward to develop desirable behaviors in dogs.
As such, clicker training is both safe and humane when used to train dogs compared to some other available methods.
Why Should You Choose Clicker Training?
There are multiple reasons why many dog trainers will choose clicker training over other methods. These reasons, when added together, make clicker training a preferable choice for many dog trainers.
When a circumstance is followed by a consequence (pleasant or unpleasant) once, we may think it is just a coincidence. However, when the same event is followed by the same result multiple times, we (humans and dogs) quickly learn that that particular circumstance will lead to a specific consequence. This learning process is known as association.
Clicker training uses a ‘click’ and rewards to mark the desired behavior. Therefore, when a dog does something, hears the ‘click’ sound, receives a reward, and is continually rewarded for that specific behavior, it will quickly associate the behavior with something pleasant.
Association increases learning effectiveness because the dog is aware of what they are doing to earn the reward. As such, the dog can remember the learned behaviors a long time after the training is done. They are also more enthusiastic in trying and initiating new behaviors due to the possibility of receiving a reward.
Clicker training is a method that uses positive reinforcement. When the dog does something desirable, it is recognized with a ‘click’ and (usually) a treat. Through such recognition and reward, the dog learns that a particular action or behavior is desirable and will be more likely to repeat it.
Some commands and tricks are also easier to train using a clicker .
This is opposed to training using punishments, whereby the dog is punished after doing something undesirable. Punishments are often dished out way after the event has occurred, and for dogs, it is hard for them to comprehend and associate the punishment with something they had done previously.
Training using punishment is also more likely to result in problematic behaviors than training using rewards and positive reinforcement . Examples of problematic behaviors include aggression towards people and other animals, fear in many situations, and eating non-foodstuffs.
Clarity of Desired Action:
Many people may think that using a clicker is unnecessary and rewards such as praises and treats are sufficient. They have this misconception because they do not understand why the clicker is used. They think that the clicker is a sugar topping on top of the actual reward when it is a ‘mark’ for the desired action.
The ‘click’ sound is very powerful because this sound only occurs under a very specific circumstance. It is only sounded when the desired behavior is happening, and after hearing it, a reward will be received. When it is heard, the dog immediately knows that he/she is doing the desired behavior, and he/she is going to be rewarded.
On the other hand, praises and treats are usually given after the desired behavior is done. Also, praises such as ‘good boy/girl’ can also be used in other situations, such as praising a neighbor’s child, making such phrases non-exclusive to training sessions. Therefore, dogs may take a longer time to associate the desired behavior and the reward.
Introducing the Clicker to Your Dog
The ‘click’ sound by itself holds no meaning initially. Your dog will be able to hear the sound, but it will not mean anything to them.
For clicker training to work, your dog needs to learn that hearing the sound means something; basically, he/she has done something that you like, and therefore, you will give a reward soon.
There are two parts to this: 1) your dog has done something you like, and 2) he/she will get a reward soon.
Reward After Click
We start with the 2nd part of teaching the dog to associate the click with the reward first because it is more straightforward and easier to understand.
This process is straightforward.
- Prepare a reward (which is usually a dog treat) that you will give after the click.
- Have your dog in front of you.
- Click and reward immediately.
When this process is repeated multiple times, your dog will associate the click with the given reward. A successful association at this phase means your dog knows that he/she will be rewarded after a click.
To check for an association, click and observe your dog’s reaction. Successful association means that when your dog hears the click, he/she will know that a reward is on the way.
Translated into actual action, it means that whenever you click, your dog will turn and look at you with the give-me-my-treat look.
Click Means ‘I Did Something Right’
Bad news: This step cannot be reached without pairing it with actual training.
Good news: When you start to incorporate clicker usage in training, your dog will gradually learn the meaning over time.
Therefore, as long as your dog has made the association of ‘click’ = reward and you use the clicker during training sessions, he/she will gradually understand this formula:
I did something (right) => I hear the ‘click’ => I will get a reward
Clicker Training Tips
There are details that owners will have to look out for if they intend to use clickers to train their dogs. Four essential aspects to note are the timing, consistency, rewards given, and clicker as a marker.
Timing Is Important
When you make the ‘click’ sound matters because the sound indicates the action that you want your dog to remember.
I will be using an example from this post regarding the training of basic commands.
For example, you want to teach the dog the ‘sit’ command, and the following are the goal and the steps you will take to achieve the goal.
Goal: When you say ‘sit’, your dog will go into the sitting position.
- Put a treat near your dog’s nose and ensure that he is sniffing at it.
- Slowly move the treat upwards and in the direction of your dog’s back.
- Reward when the dog assumes the sitting position.
- Tempt your dog to stand up with a treat, and repeat steps 2-3.
Most new clicker trainers will think that they should click and reward at step 3 when the dog has already assumed the sitting position.
However, the suggested time to click is when you see your dog in the sitting process, between steps 2 and 3. Due to a slight lag in reflex (regardless of how good your hand-eye coordination is), your dog will hear the sound right as he/she gets into the sitting position. Your dog will then register the ‘sitting’ action as something that he/she should do to get praises and rewards.
Be Consistent with Rewards
It would be best if you always are consistent when you reward your dog. You may confuse your dog if you give a lot of praises sometimes and give only a light acknowledgment at other times.
One click is sufficient for each time to want to recognize the desired action. If you do multiple clicks, your dog will get confused over the actual action that you want to praise him/her for.
Also, give only one portion of the reward for each click. If not, your dog will expect more from you when you provide the lesser amount and may be confused why you do not give him/her more.
If the worst happens and you run out of treats, lavish your dog with attention and praises. However, you can avoid this by having a dog training treat bag by your side.
Remember, even if you have used the clicker for a long time and your dog understands that the ‘click’ sound means that he/she has done something right, the sound is never a substitute for praises or treats from you!
Refrain from Punishment
An important note is to pair the clicker with a reward and avoid any form of punishment.
I strongly discourage punishments such as smacking the nose or hitting the head even if you feel that your dog has done something unacceptable as he/she may associate the click with something negative. This may result in fear of the ‘click’ sound and avoiding behaviors done when the sound is heard, reducing training effectiveness with the clicker.
Instead of punishing your dog, opt to click and reward him/her when the behavior is corrected to something you want.
Clicker Is A Marker
Remember that the clicker and the ‘click’ sound that it makes are markers for the dog to recognize that what he/she is doing is right.
An analogy will be like how a cameraman uses a camera to take photos. When you make the ‘click’ sound, it is equivalent to pressing the capture button on a camera. The scene that is captured is the action that you want your dog to do.
It is NOT a remote control, whereby when you press it, your dog will do whatever you have trained him/her to do.
Therefore, if you find that your dog is not responding to your command or have trouble correcting a behavior, reflect on your actions. Is the gestures and commands that you give related to what you want your dog to do? Can your dog make the association?
Starting the Clicker Training Journey
Now that you understand the benefits of clicker training, it is time to embark on the journey. Start by introducing the clicker to your dog, then incorporating the clicker in your training sessions. Keep in mind the four clicker training tips, grab a clicker and a treat bag, and start training your dog!
A good starting point will be this post, which features some basic commands to teach your dog.