What is clicker training?
Clicker training is an easy and effective way of opening up a clear channel of communication between you and your dog. A clicker is a noise-making tool that allows a trainer to instantly and clearly mark a behaviour as desirable. Clicker training is easy for dogs and people to learn, and is a wonderful method for any dog-human team.
Why use a clicker?
Simply because a clicker can mark a moment faster than the human voice can. The “click” instantly pinpoints the exact moment you wish to reinforce and reward. The clicker helps your dog quickly understand what you are asking of them. It increases accuracy and reduces confusion and distraction. Clicker training is so wonderful because it gets solid and fast results through a fun and respectful exchange between handler and dog. You can communicate your wishes clearly and quickly to your dog without stress or invading their physical space. Clicker training strengthens the relationship you have with your dog, even if you are working on something you both find challenging.
How do you use a clicker?
During training press your thumb down and press the “click” button the instant your dog does the behavior you are looking for, then promptly offer them a small reward. Your dog will quickly recognize that the “click” means they’ve done the right thing and that there are positive incentives for doing so.
Do you always have to use a clicker?
No! Clicker training is useful when teaching new skills, or refining or adding to an existing skill. Once a behavior is successfully “marked,” you don’t need to use the clicker. But don’t forget to continue to show your gratitude for good behavior.
Important Aspects of Clicker Training
Use tiny bits of treats (as shown above)– or instead of feeding a usual meal, use that portion of food as treats. You aren’t going to make your dog overweight by rewarding with food, because you are only using small amounts of it. The goal is to offer a quick reward – not a distracting drawn out minute of chewing. Keep the treats in a treat bag or in your pocket, only taking them out one at a time to reward. You want to keep the focus on what you are doing, rather than creating a fixation on food.
Split the training of a task into steps and work your way up in sections to the whole behavior. This is called “shaping” a behavior; you are communicating the steps to your dog in a way that they will be able to understand, and then finally, putting the whole routine together. Simple example: a puppy doesn’t offer a reliable “sit,” and often barks at you when he does sit. First, click and feed each time he sits. Repeat a few times. Next, click and feed only when he sits and clearly commits to the sit. Then, finally, wait to click until he does so without barking. The split second he is sitting and quiet, click, reward!
Over time, you don’t always have to use treats as reinforcers. Rewards such as toys and play can be substituted in the place of food, depending on the preferences of your dog and their experience level. There are also alternate ways of using the clicker training method if your dog is disabled (ie deaf dogs can be trained using a bursts of light from a flashlight).
When training certain skills, you can click before your dog even knows he did the right thing. Take leash training for example: whenever the leash is relaxed and your dog is nicely beside you, “click” and reward! There are cases where commands are not needed, and other cases where commands can be added as a step of the clicker training process.
Clicker training doesn’t have to just be done in special allotted training sessions. When there are things you want to work on, you can incorporate the clicker into daily routines. In fact, half of my clicker training with Miles is during normal routines!
Practice often, but keep training sessions short. Training is hard work for you and for your dog. Keep things light and fun.
The History of Clicker Training
Clicker training was originally developed in the 1940’s by husband and
wife team Marian Kruse and Keller Breland, who were graduate students of the famous psychologist and behaviorist B.F. Skinner. The couple were informed by Skinner’s foundational studies of applying “operant conditioning” during training (meaning: a student learning through the results of their actions – ie good behaviour results in a treat). Both Skinner and his students realized through behavioral studies that praise-based methods of animal training were often too clumsy to properly allow for clear communication between teacher and student, and also, often weren’t rewarding enough for the student. Applied use of clicker training was originally employed for military purposes. Cats were trained to carry radios, ravens to carry spy cameras, seagulls for search and rescue alert and dolphins kept watch for approaching vessels at sea — are just a few examples of early uses of clicker training. Today, clicker training is recognized as one of the most successful and respectful methods of training animals.
Great article, a really good introduction for people new to clickers. Using a clicker can seem intimidating when you're not used to it (which I often forget since I've been using one for so long!) and you made it really accessible. Will be sharing this!