Clicker training is a teaching method that can be used when training animals of various species. By clearly notating the desired action the moment that it occurs the sound of the clicker is used to create a connection between commands and actions. Following the sound of the clicker with a reward then reinforces the praiseworthy action and encourages its repetition.
What is a Clicker?
There are numerous types of clickers on the market but they all involve the use of a handheld device that emits a loud clicking sound when pressed. Easily portable, this simple gadget can be carried in a pocket or on a keychain so that it is always easily accessible.
Why a Clicker?
The history of clicker training can be found in marine mammal training. Although these trainers utilize whistles so that the sound can be heard underwater, the basic principle of clicker training is the same – using sound to indicate the desired action, which is then rewarded. A clicker works well for this purpose when training a pet outside of the water because the sound travels quite far.
How Does Clicker Training Work?
The diagram demonstrates behavioral conditioning.
Clicker training works in a similar way. Your dog recognizes treats as something desirable. If, every time you click a clicker you follow that click with a treat, your dog will learn to associate the sound of that clicker with treats.
Once your dog makes that association, you can use it to highlight desirable behaviors so that your dog will repeat them.
For example, you would teach the “sit” command with a traditional training approach but at the very moment that your dog completes the “sit” action, you would click the clicker to highlight that moment and then reward your dog with a treat.
Clicker training allows you to signal a desired behavior at the instant that that behavior takes place. This means that there is no confusion in which part of an action you are praising and makes it easier for your dog to understand what a specific command is asking them to do.
Clicker training is not a remote control to be used to manipulate your dog’s behavior, however. Instead, the clicker should be used as a notation, something to say – “this is what “sit” means, good job!”
Using a Clicker to Train Your Dog
To begin using clicker training with your dog you must create a reliable link between the sound of the clicker and the reward of treats. To do this it’s crucial that anytime the clicker is clicked, your dog gets a treat – even if you pressed it by accident. This teaches your dog that the sound of the clicker is always followed by a treat.
Now, as you work on training your dog with traditional training methods, keep the clicker on hand. When your dog performs the exact action desired of them, click the clicker and reward them with a treat.
As you progress through training with your dog, you can continue to use the clicker as a training tool for new behavior. For example, once your dog has mastered the “sit” command, you no longer have to use the clicker every time that your dog sits. Instead, you could apply this training technique to teach your dog to sit in a specific area when you ask them to. Your dog will recognize the presence of the clicker and pick up more quickly on these new behaviors.
The clicker also works well to remind your dog of what they are expected to do when given a command. Like children, dogs can get distracted or forget (voluntarily or involuntarily) how to perform a task. They may also become complacent – “I know she wants me to sit but I’ll do it in my own time”. These problems are common, but when you have used clicker training to teach your dog commands, you can pull out the clicker and give your dog a refresher course in what they should be doing when given a specific cue. Just hearing the sound of the clicker will push your dog to be more cooperative and “remind” them of what they are being asked to do.
How is a Clicker Different to Traditional Training Methods?
Often people mistakenly believe that clicker training is a replacement for other types of training. In actuality, the clicker is more of a learning aid to help your dog make a connection between your commands and their actions.
When training your dog without a clicker, you are teaching your dog that when they are given a command they are expected to perform a series of actions. If they do this correctly they will receive a treat, and this prompts them to repeat the series of actions in response to the command in the future.
For example, you may teach your dog to “sit” by giving the “sit” command and holding a treat over your dog’s nose while slowly moving it backward. This puts your dog in a sit position. You then give your dog the treat to reward them. While this teaches your dog that they will be rewarded if they hear the word “sit” and follow a treat into a sit position, it doesn’t tell them exactly which action earned the treat.
When you use a clicker during training, you are still teaching your dog to perform the desired action in response to your command. The difference is that you are using the clicker to mark the exact moment that your dog completes the desired action. This lets your dog know that it is the exact moment that their bottom touches the floor that the clicker sounds and they get their reward.
It seems counterintuitive that adding an additional step to training your dog will make it easier for your dog to learn. When you are using the clicker, however, you are giving your dog more detailed information about what is expected of them.
Tips for Successful Clicker Training
When clicker training your dog, there are a few things that you can do or avoid doing to make the process more successful.
- Do be consistent when using the clicker. If you start training using a clicker, continue using it and use it in the same way each time
- Do take advantage of natural actions to train your dog. For example, when your dog is naturally in a sit position, give the sit command, click the clicker, and reward your dog.
- Do break complex or lengthy commands into smaller steps to make them easier for your dog to master. This may mean using the clicker at multiple points while teaching a lengthy command.
- Don’t use the clicker to get your dog’s attention. The clicker should only be used to highlight specific desirable actions so that it is an effective teaching tool.
- Don’t ever use the clicker to bring your dog to you for punishment. Not only is this using the clicker to get your dogs attention, but it’s also creating a negative association with responding to the clicker.
- Don’t hesitate when it comes to clicking the clicker, your aim is to mark the exact point at which your dog complies with a command.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Clicker Training
A clicker can be a great teaching aid, but it isn’t the right tool for everyone.
A clicker can be beneficial because it:
- Gives your dog more details about what each command means so learning comes faster.
- Keeps your dog motivated to continue learning because they are guaranteed rewards.
- Helps to strengthen the bond between you and your dog, as they can better understand what is being asked of them.
A clicker may not be right for you because it:
- Relies on hearing a sound, so it isn’t a good option for dogs with hearing problems.
- Can make a loud and startling sound, which is too much for some timid and skittish dogs.
- Isn’t ideal for dogs that aren’t interested in food or don’t have a food drive since it relies on the desire for treat rewards to work.