What is Clicker Training For Dogs?
Clicker training is a method of animal training that uses a click to tell an animal that it has done something correctly.
This practice is called “marking” – you’re telling your dog “hey, that was a great thing you just did!”
Why is Clicker Training Popular?
Clicker training is a great positive reinforcement training tool because it enables you to be very precise with what behavior you are rewarding.
When not using a clicker and simply offering your dog a reward, it can be easy to miss your mark. For example, say you want to reward your dog from sitting quietly at the window when the UPS man approaches.
By the time you get up, go get a treat, and return to your dog, the situation may no longer be the same. Maybe your dog has gotten up to follow you. Maybe he started to play with a toy instead.
The benefit of a clicker is that you can click the moment you see that good behavior, and then take your time (usually ideally less than 30 seconds) getting a treat to your dog.
When not using a clicker, it’s easy to accidentally reward your dog for a behavior other than the one you are trying to reinforce.
For example, imagine you are teaching your dog to lay down. If you simply offer him a treat when he lies down, he may jump up to get the treat from you, and then might believe he is being rewarded for standing up, rather than the lying down motion he performed earlier.
Clickers are great for rewarding exact behaviors!
Why Words Like “Yes” Aren’t as Good as Using a Clicker
Now really, you don’t need a clicker to make this technique work. It’s true that you can use a snap of your fingers, or a specific, short phrase like “Yes”.
The problem with using words as markers is that tone is very important for dogs, and if the tone or cadence changes when you use the word, the marker word won’t be as effective.
If you have multiple family members, it can be difficult to ensure that they all stay consistent with the exact same tone when using a marker word.
Instead, clickers allow for consistency and exactness, no matter who is doing the training!
It’s also very difficult for us to be precise with our word timing. Timing and consistency is key for clicker training.
What Exactly is a Dog Clicker?
The clicker is a small noisemaker held in the palm of your hand, with a button that you push to make a clicking sound.
Clickers can vary in sound and style. Some are bulky and emit a loud click, while others are small and emit a soft click, for dogs who are skittish and are scared of loud clickers.
Check out our full guide to the best dog training clickers here to learn more about the different options you have when it comes to clickers – or watch our video review detailing different types of clickers below.
How Does Dog Clicker Training Work?
The clicker creates a connection between a human trainer and an animal trainee.
First, the trainer teaches the dog that every time it hears the clicking sound, it gets a treat. Once the dog understands that clicks are always followed by treats, the click becomes a sound with a positive association.
To begin clicker training, your first task is to “prime” the clicker. All this means is that you want to begin teaching your dog that click = treat. So just go ahead and start clicking and then treating your dog. Click, treat. Click, treat. Don’t ask your dog to do anything. All you teaching them is that the click means a treat is coming!
Once your dog has learned to associate the click with getting a treat, you can begin to use the clicker when teaching behaviors or tricks.
For example, if a pet owner wants to teach a dog to sit, they will click the instant the dog’s butt hits the floor and then give the dog a tasty training treat.
A clicker is a fantastic dog training tool any trainer or owner can use to build better communication with their dog, which in turn speeds up training.
Some dogs will naturally respond better to this type of training than others. For example, anxious dogs or dogs who are sensitive to sounds may be frightened of the clicker. For these dogs, opt for a quiet clicker like the Karen Pryor i-Click clicker.
Once your dog seems to understand the connection between the click and the treat, you’re ready to get started. Keep these guidelines in mind to ensure your clicker training success:
- Click just once, right when your pet does what you want him to do.
- Remember to follow every click with a treat. This is very important. Never click without following through with the treat, or the clicker will lose its power!
- Work on one behavior at a time.
- Keep training sessions short (Under 10 minutes – even under 5 minutes initially).
How to Train Your Dog With a Clicker
There are three main methods you can use in conjunction with a clicker to achieve your desired results.
“Catching” is when you catch your pet in the act of doing the behavior you want.
It’s the perfect method for training behaviors that your pet already does on his own, like sitting, lying down, and maybe rolling over on the grass.
For example, if you want to train your dog to lie down, you can stand in your living room with your dog and just wait.
After a little while, your dog will probably decide to lie down and get comfortable on his own. The instant his body hits the floor, click and toss a treat on the ground a few feet in front of him.
With “shaping,” you gradually build a new behavior in a series of small steps by clicking and rewarding.
Shaping is a good method for training new behaviors (or a series of behaviors) that your pet doesn’t already do on his own naturally.
You start by rewarding the first small behavior that begins your pet on his journey towards the complete behavior. When he’s mastered that first step, you ask a little more of him—require him to do the next small step to earn his click and treat.
For example, imagine you want to teach your dog to roll over on command. At first, you may simply reward your dog for lying down and lifting a paw up. Once he can do that, you’ll reward him for rolling onto his back. Then finally, you’ll move onto trying to get that full roll over motion.
“Luring” involves using a treat as a guide to get your pet into the desired position.
The treat is held in front of your pet’s nose and then moved while he follows it, moving him into the desired position.
For example, to lure a dog into a down position, hold a piece of food in front of his nose and then slowly draw it straight down in front of his chest to the floor. The food will work like a magnet, drawing your dog’s nose and then his body downward.
As his elbows touch the floor, click and treat for the down.
After some practice, you can just use the hand motion to prompt your dog to lie down. Make the same movement as before, but with no treat in your hand.
Over many repetitions, you can gradually make this hand signal smaller and shorter. Eventually, your dog will lie down when you point to the ground.
Watch as dog training expert Victoria Stilwell takes us through some clicker training basics!
Advantages to Dog Clicker Training
There are a number of reasons why many trainers endorse clicker training:
- Clicker training is a positive reinforcement training tool, built on rewarding your dog for good behaviors rather than punishing bad ones.
- You can do several repetitions of the same behavior without losing the dog’s interest or affecting his motivation due to the treats.
- This is one of the best training concepts to build a great relationship between the dog and his handler.
- Clickers can be used by any individual or trainer. Many clickers are designed to help those who are mobility-impaired train their dogs.
- Clicker training is an excellent way to train dogs who participate in sports such as agility. Because timing is so critical when training, a clicker is invaluable with shaping a dog’s behavior.
Disadvantages to Dog Clicker Training
While clicker training is generally well-liked training method, there are a few disadvantages to keep in mind:
- Clicker training is a reward-based concept, so if you are dealing with a dog that has a low food or toy drive, then this training might not work as well (but then again, most training strategies will be tricky with a dog not interested in food or toys. We suggest trying higher-value treats instead!).
- If the clicker training is not done properly (for example, clicking without following up with a treat or clicking at the wrong time), then the training tool can be ruined.
Tips On Clicker Training For Dogs
In addition to the information listed above, there are a few more clicker training for dogs tips we’d like to provide you with.
- End training sessions on a good note, when your pet has succeeded with what you’re working on. If necessary, ask your dog to do something you know it can do well at the end of a session.
- If your dog runs away when he hears the click, you can make the sound softer by putting it in your pocket or wrapping a towel around the hand that is holding the clicker.
- Time it perfectly. The important thing to remember with clicker dog training is to get the timing of your clicks right. You have to use the clicker to click as soon as your dog gives you the behavior you’re looking for.
- Use lots of small treats. Make sure you have plenty of treats for your dog so you can repeat the exercises again and again. However, the treats should be small so your dog won’t fill up on them. If your dog fills up quickly on treats, he won’t be interested in continuing.
- Try toys too! If your dog isn’t big into treats, don’t forget that you can still use a clicker and have a toy or playtime be a reward instead of a treat. Just find what your dog loves and use that as the reward!
For more dog training resources, check out our list of the top dog training books and see our curation collection of free online dog training videos!