Clicker Training and You: Why and How?

Clicker Training is the most effective way to train a dog. It’s quick/easy to understand for humans and dogs. Clicker training is a generic term for “training using a reward marker”. When you pair a treat with the click! or a noise, you can create a training tool to signal the dog he did something good the instant he does the correct behavior. For example: when your dog sits, you click! and he will immediately thinks “Wow, I’m going to get a treat now, and all I did was sit. I want to do that again.”

The clicker originally came into dog training in the 1980’s by a marine mammal trainer named Karen Pryor. The original purpose was to use on dolphins (using a whistle though, same idea.) because these noises travel through water and the animal could connect the noise with whatever reward it was paired with, therefore wanting to repeat the behavior.

When you use a clicker, make sure it is easily accessible. If you have it on a string around your neck or wrist coil, you can time your training better. If it’s in your pocket, you may not catch the behavior at the right time and possibly reward the wrong one.

You do not necessarily have to use a clicker, you can use other things such as words like “yes!’ or “good”, but it needs to be something differently than what you’d normally say. I wouldn’t recommend using “good boy” or “good girl” because you can easily confuse your dog and possibly reinforce the wrong behavior. Other things you can use are sounds, such a tongue click. Using a clicker is a better option because it is so distinguishable from every day noises.

The nice thing about using a word or sound is you’ll always have it with you, no need to fumble around with your jacket pockets searching for your clicker.

You can teach your dog using both a clicker and words. With my dogs I use my words “yes” and “good” for old commands they know that I am going to give a treat for, but when I teach something new I use my clicker.
Here is an example of why the reward marker is such an effective tool from the book The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller.

“Let’s pretend we are dolphin trainers and that we want to train our dolphin to jump out of the water on cue. We can wait by the side of the pool until he jumps on his own accord, then quickly call him over to the side of the pool and feed him a fish. But wait-he now thinks he got the fish for swimming over to the side of the pool. How do we tell him the fish is a reward for the jump? We could try tossing the fish to him in midair, but that wouldn’t be a very accurate or precise way to communicate, especially if our aim isn’t very good!

There is a simpler way-we do it with the whistle. First we condition the dolphin to the reward marker; that is, we teach him the whistle means “fish”. To do this we simply blow the whistle,then feed him a fish. Blow the whistle, feed him a fish. Blow the whistle, feed him a fish. And we do this over and over again, until every time he hears that whistle his brain thinks “fish”. The next time he jumps out of the water, we blow the whistle when he’s at the top of his leap, and his brain will think “fish”. Even though he does not get the fish until he lands and swims over to the side of the pool, he knows that fish was for the jump.”

When using a reward marker such as the clicker, timing is very important. You need to click at the EXACT moment or with 2 seconds your dog does the correct behavior. The better your timing, the faster the dog will connect the behavior with”I get a treat” and will be more likely to repeat the behavior.

Having your clicker easily accessible will help with training your dog. If you have it on a string around your neck or wrist coil, you can time your training better, clicking at the same time your dog does the command. If it’s in your pocket, you may not catch the behavior at the right time and possibly reward the wrong one.

How To “Load the Clicker”

First thing: we need to associate the click! noise with a reward. Using treats is best because your dog can eat it and you can move on. If you, however, are anti-treat you can use your dogs toy.

Without saying anything I want you to click! and give your dog a treat, even if they’re not paying attention. If you click, call them, then treat you will reward the dog for looking at you rather than the dog understanding the treat=reward.
Wait until your dog loses focus on you. Depending on the dog, this could take a few seconds or a couple of minutes, just be patient.

When your dog looks away, click and reward, again without saying anything or trying to gain they’re attention. I want that little light bulb to go off in their head and they have that “AHA!” moment.

Repeat this several times until your dog gets excited when they hear that click. if you can click and the dog immediately looks at you and those ears perk up, you’ll know that’s when the clicker is “loaded”.

Clicker Rules

Now that your dog understands the clicker, it’s important for you to understand the clicker rules. If you want this tool to work effectively, you must follow these rules.

1) A treat MUST ALWAYS follow the clicking noise. If you’re clicking and nothing is following that click, then to your dog it’s just another noise and the world. Why should your dog listen? Even if you accidentally click, you have about 30 seconds to go run and grab whatever safe food reward there is.
2) DO NOT use this tool to get your dog’s attention. That is a big no-no and a common mistake people training their dogs make. This tool is designed to tell your dog they did good and they get a reward. If you use it to get your dog to come to you, you could possibly be rewarding the wrong behavior.
Let’s pretend your at home and you cannot find your dog fluffy anywhere. You looked everywhere or so you thought. Well Fluffy is under your bed chewing up your new running sneakers, if you start clicking, Fluffy will of course come running to you, but now Fluffy will think she is going to get rewarded for chewing on your new sneakers(remember, a treat always follows the click).
Only use this tool when your dog is in your presence, performing good behaviors.
3) When teaching your dog something new, ALWAYS use the clicker. It will make training so much faster. Some people forget the clicker and think, its okay, but to make the commands more consistent its best if you use the clicker until your dog knows what hand signals and verbal cues mean (consistently doing them) that’s when you can phase out the clicker and start using words such as “yes” or “good” in the same way as the clicker. Don’t phase out treats until your dog does the command every time, the first time you ask.

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