Clicker training is a great way to make communication easier between you and your dog—young, old, brand new, or any dog in-between. It’s been popular among dog owners and trainers since the 1990s because it allows us to quickly develop a shared language of understanding with our dogs. Here are the basics:
What Is A Clicker?
Clickers are a small plastic box or device that, when pressed, make a clear clicking noise. The clicker itself isn’t a remote control or a magic button. Rather, clickers are effective because they become a conditioned reinforcer, meaning that our dogs quickly learn that whenever they hear the sound of the clicker, they’ll get a reward (treat).
Clicker training is especially effective because it allows us to clearly communicate to our dogs that they’ve performed a specific behavior or movement we like.
Why Clickers Work
Some people mistakenly think that the sound of the clicker is the reward, but for dogs the clicker is simply a clear signal that the reward is coming. When dogs are rewarded for doing something you want, they’re far more likely to repeat that behavior again (the primarily reason positive reinforcement training is so effective).
Alternately, you can use a marker word like “good” or “yes” when your dog does what you want to let them know a treat is coming. The sound of a clicker, however, often makes more sense to dogs because it’s a clear and consistent sound.
To get started with clicker training your dog or puppy, you should have:
- A Clicker. You can order one online or pick one up at most pet supply stores. There are different designs; some are square with a metal sheet inside, and others are plastic with a raised button. Both produce the same sound, so don’t worry too much about what it looks like!
Very rarely, some extremely sound sensitive dogs may be alarmed or uncomfortable with the sound of the clicker. In this scenario, you can find quieter clickers that may better suit shy or sensitive dogs.
- Treats. When getting started, you’ll want lots of very small bits of treats (both for calorie control and ease of eating quickly). You can also use your dog’s food bowl with a meal’s worth of kibble and introduce your dog or puppy to clicker training at mealtime.
The first step to introducing your dog to a clicker is to teach them that the sound of the clicker means they’re about to get a reward—a process called “charging” the clicker.
- Click and immediately give your dog a treat.
- Repeat several times over the next few minutes.
At this stage, your dog is essentially getting a treat for doing “nothing,” but that’s ok! It’s still important. At this point, you don’t want to give any cues or ask your dog to do anything, and ideally your dog should be doing something different each time you click, such as:
- Wandering around
- Looking at you
Clicking while your dog is doing random and different things prevents them from misinterpreting the meaning of the click (i.e., thinking they should repeat the same thing, like sitting, to get the click and treat). That comes next!
Learning New Skills
Once your dog understands that clicks mean treats, it’s time to start incorporating the clicker into a training routine for a particular trick or skill. Once a dog is confident with a new skill, many trainers will transition to praising and treating the behavior when they don’t have a clicker handy, but while working on new skills, a clicker can help your dog learn faster. Two ways to teach with a clicker include techniques called luring or capturing.
- Luring. Use a treat to lead your dog into the position you want. For example, when teaching “sit,” get your dog’s attention with a treat and lure their head up until they naturally sit. When their bottom touches the ground, you would click and then give your dog a treat.
- Capturing. To teach by capturing, you want to watch for your dog to do any naturally-occurring behavior. Click and treat every time they do a specific movement, like stretching, yawning, or shaking. Over time, with repeated reinforcing click cues, you’ll be able to add in a verbal cue so you can ask your dog to do the behavior.
One of the joys of clicker training is that it requires our training interactions with our dogs to be rooted in a positive reinforcement approach. Clicker training can be used for more than just tricks; the technique is also useful for adjusting behavior you might find challenging, like barking at the neighbor’s dogs when your dog goes outside, or jumping up on guests.
Does your dog bark too much?
Instead of yelling at your dog to stop barking, a clicker can be an effective tool for helping to shift your dog’s behavior. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Have a pocket full of treats and your clicker ready.
Step 2: When your dog starts barking in the yard or at the window, wait for the moment your dog is quiet and then click, treat, and praise. The key is to click in the moment your dog is silent between barks.
Step 3: Your dog will quickly make the association that being quiet gets the click and the treat, and they will start to offer that silence instead of barking—just don’t forget to keep rewarding.
Does your dog jump up on visitors?
Instead of scolding your dog for jumping, proactively teach them that doing something else is more fun!
Step 1: Have a pocket full of treats and your clicker ready.
Step 2: Click and treat the moment all four of your dog’s feet are on the floor.
Step 3: They will quickly will make the association that good things happen when they aren’t jumping, and will begin to offer the four feet on the floor behavior.
Want to learn more about Clicker Training? The national Clicker Expo conferences (there will be a virtual option in 2022) is a great way to connect with other people teaching basic manners and advanced skills to their pets with positive reinforcement methods like clicker training!
Sassafras Lowrey is a dog trainer turned trick instructor turned writer who seriously loves dogs! She got involved with dog training as a teenager, but it wasn’t until her and her partner adopted a former street dog in 2011 that she realized she could combine her passion for dogs with her passion for writing! After looking into ways she could enrich her dog Charlotte’s life, and seeing other pet parents do the same, Sassafras decided to write books to help both dogs and their humans. Check out the following activity from her new book, Chew This Journal!