How to clicker train your dog
Ever wondered what those tiny handheld clicking devices are that you’ve seen dog trainers using on the TV? Well, they’re actually a handy training tool that tie in nicely with positive reinforcement dog training.
Most dogs are always eager to please their humans and love to learn new things, and they’re more likely to succeed with this when they get rewards at the end of it. This is why positive reinforcement training is so effective. But how can a clicker help?
Many people might think a clicker tool is a silly gimmick that doesn’t really have much purpose, but it’s actually quite the opposite. Let’s explore what clicker training actually is, how it can benefit you and your pooch and how to do it.
What is clicker training?
Clicker training, sometimes referred to as ‘mark and reward’, is a type of positive reinforcement training (rewarding your dog when they display a behaviour that you like), but it uses a clicker to help out too.
A clicker is simply nothing more than a tool that makes a little noise, working to mark the exact moment in which your dog does something good.
As we know, researchers are constantly trying to learn more about canine behaviour so we can understand what our dogs are thinking and feeling, and in turn, help us work out the best training techniques. It’s understood that when a dogs’ behaviour is rewarded and praised, they’re more likely to do it again, in the hopes of another reward.
So, instead of solely concentrating on berating your dog for everything they do wrong, it’s essential to concentrate on everything they do right, you can’t take that good behaviour for granted! By reinforcing those excellent behaviours, it can have an incredible impact on how your dog chooses to behave.
The click communicates to your dog the precise moment they did what you wanted them to do, so good timing with a treat to follow are essential in clicker training. When followed instantly by a reward, the clicking sound is conditioned to become the sign that a reward is coming soon.
The value of a clicker is that it tells your dog exactly what behaviour you’re rewarding. By clicking at the right time, you can ‘mark’ the moment your dog did what you wanted. So, rather than your dog having to guess what they’re being rewarded for, the click tells your dog precisely what they did correctly.
For example, if you’re training your dog to sit, you would click at the exact moment your dog’s rear end hits the ground.
What is the meaning of the click?
There’s nothing special about the sound of the click, it’s literally just an easy way to mark a precise moment of good behaviour. The important part about it is that it’s unlikely you’ll ever be able to make that specific clicking noise outside of a training environment.
So, this means that you can use anything in substitute of the clicker, as long as it’s never a sound that you’d use to communicate with your dog in other normal situations. For example, you could blow a whistle, clap your hands, click your tongue or even just use a ‘marker’ word like ‘yes’ or ‘good’.
For the poor pooches that are a little hard of hearing, you could use a hand gesture or a gentle shoulder tap as a marker.
What’s the point in a clicker if I can just use a word?
Well, the sound of a clicker is consistent, unlike your voice. Naturally, your voice changes in tone, pitch and volume, but the clicker never changes.
Whatever you choose to use, clicker, marker or hand gesture, none of them hold any meaning until you combine it with the good thing that comes afterwards, the reward. The meaning of the click is to tell your pooch that there’s a reward incoming.
Typically, a high value, tasty treat does the trick, but surprisingly, not all dogs are that motivated by food incentives, so you might need to get a bit creative with the reward.
Some dogs would rather do the work for their favourite tennis ball, some would love a big fuss and some would give up all that for a yummy morsel of food.
How does clicker training help?
As much as we wish our dogs could totally understand what we were saying (it’d definitely make things easier when we’re trying to tell them to stop being naughty), they can’t, so we need to use clever training methods to simplify things and inform our canines on what’s right and what’s wrong.
So, when you’re training your dog, it might seem totally obvious to you what behaviour you’re rewarding when you toss them a treat, but is it that obvious to your dog who doesn’t have a clue what you’re thinking or feeling?
Let’s look at an example. When teaching your dog to lie down, you need to make it clear that when their tummy hits the ground, that’s the desired behaviour. But if they pop up as soon as they touch the floor, or they have to get up to get to their reward, how will they know that the reward is for lying down and not walking to the treat?
It’s easier with food rewards to give them it instantly, but if their reward is a game of tug of war, it’s a lot trickier. The click works to capture the exact moment where your dog is doing what you want, it fills the time between your dog performing the desired behaviour and how long it takes for you to get them their reward. With the clicker, your dog knows the precise moment where they did something right.
You might be wondering why you can’t just use praise instead, saying ‘good boy/girl’. Well, you could, but it’s not as direct and clear as the click. After all, if you’re anything like most pooch parents, you’re probably praising your dog nonstop for no reason at all, meaning it won’t be distinct enough for the training scenarios.
As we mentioned earlier, the click works so well because your dog would never hear that sound in any other environment.
Not only is clicker training super clear for your dog to understand, dogs that are trained using a clicker tend to thrive on learning, becoming super trainable. Working really hard to earn that clicking sound makes it become like a game for your dog, so they tend to be more driven, focused and eager to please you.
How do you do it?
If you fancy clicker training your pooch, you can start it from any age, whether they’re a youngster or a senior citizen.
To begin, you’ll need your dog to learn what the clicker actually means, this is called ‘loading the clicker’. To do this, you need to click and then instantly give your dog a treat which will build the association between the clicker and the reward. It should take about 20 repetitions for your dog to comprehend that a click equals a reward.
One important thing to note in these starting stages, if you accidentally click, you must still reward.
When clicking, try to keep the clicker either behind your back or down by your side, don’t put it in front of the dog or else they could become wary. Extremely timid pooches might be really jumpy at the sound, so you can try to muffle the noise by clicking it in your pocket.
Now it’s time to get to work training. This is pretty self-explanatory from now on, if you’re training your dog to sit, you want to click as soon as they hit the ground and then reward.
Important things to consider
- Never click to get your dog’s attention or for anything other than training
- Only use it to tell your dog what they did was right, otherwise it’ll stop being effective
- Only click one time for each good behaviour
- Keep training short and sweet, you don’t want your dog to get frustrated and bored
Using clickers can also be useful for ‘shaping’ behaviours. Shaping is used when you’re teaching something a little trickier that needs to be done in multiple stages.
So, if you’re teaching your dog to shake hands with you, you might click and reward when your dog moves their paw towards you until they do that consistently and keep shaping the behaviour until they fully shake hands.
Clickers are also a brilliant way to quickly catch and reward random good behaviours. If you’ve got a bonkers dog who’s always whizzing around, you might want to click and reward when you spot them lying down quietly chilling out.
Eventually, all your training will just come into place and ‘click’, if you pardon the pun. When your four-legged friend has mastered a new behaviour or trick, you won’t need the clicker anymore, it’s only needed as a training tool.
Hopefully, we’ve given you all the tools you need when it comes to using a clicker to train your pooch to perfection.
Clickers aren’t an essential component for training your dog, but they can prove to be a really handy tool to get your furry friend trained and super eager to work hard for that tiny little clicking sound. Give it a go!
- Dog training methods: Their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare Animal Welfare, 13, Feb 2004, 63-69