Most modern dog training techniques involve giving a dog a reward when they carry out an action that we want. The reason this works so well is that dogs tend to do pretty much anything for a reward they want or need.
The desire for rewards or treats is what makes modern positive training methods better than old-school negative training methods. We can give a reward for behaviours we want and withhold a reward if they do not carry out the correct action.
The main problem is that it can be difficult to instantly reward a dog for the behaviour we want, and that’s where clicker training comes in.
Below, we have created a complete guide to clicker training for dogs and the pros and cons of clicker training. By the end of this article you should have all the information you need on how to clicker train a dog.
What Is Clicker Training for Dogs?
You have probably heard about clicker training, but what exactly is it? Clicker training is a positive reinforcement training method that was developed by marine mammal trainers (although, they use whistles instead of clickers because they can be heard underwater).
Marine mammal trainers had to use positive reinforcement methods to train their animals, as negative training techniques do not work with an animal that can simply swim away. The clicker or whistle tells the animal that the behaviour they are performing at that exact moment is correct and will earn them a reward.
In dog training circles the click sound is often referred to as an event marker. An event marker is a signal used to precisely indicate to a dog that they are carrying out the correct action at that very moment.
Without an event marker it is incredibly difficult to communicate this positivity at the right time. For example, rewarding your dog with a food treat after they have performed an action is almost certainly too late.
What Does an Event Marker Sound Like?
Well, apart from the obvious clicker sound that we have already discussed, an event market can be pretty much anything as long as it is clear and definite. Your dog needs to recognise the sound and match that to the behaviour they are currently conducting.
Event markers need to be incredibly clear and precise, and they shouldn’t be used at any other time. Long or complicated event markers can make your dog confused and they may even have the opposite effect.
If you are using your voice, something like “Yes” or “Good” are probably the best options for an event marker. The problem with these are that we often use them in other situations as well, which can be confusing to your dog.
You can select another word that is less commonly used, but we feel the best option is to use a clicker. The clicking sound is clear and your dog should not get it confused with other sounds or words.
While clicking sounds and words are most commonly used as event markers, other tools such as vibration collars or laser lights may be used for deaf dogs.
What Is a Clicker?
A clicker is a small mechanical device that fits into the palm of your hand. A clicking sound is produced from a small metal tongue that is located inside the device that can be initiated via a button.
Clickers are incredibly useful as they are small and portable, which means they can go everywhere with you. The clicking sound is also very distinctive and consistently the same, which is important for training purposes.
Why Does Clicker Training Work So Well?
The reason why clicker training works so well is that dogs learn through consequences and rewards. When a dog completes an action there are three possible outcomes for them.
- Things get better for them
- Things get worse
- Things stay the same
Everything your dog does will land in one of these three categories, whether you are training them or not. This is important because these categories will change the way your dog will behave in the future. If they do an action and things get better for them, they are more likely to do that same action in the future.
There is No Punishment
All dog trainers rely on some sort of consequence or reward to training a dog, and clicker training is no different in that regard. However, clicker training includes an active choice that avoids punishment.
Negative punishment is known to reduce bad behaviour, but there are a large number of downsides that make it a poor form of training. Training that involves negative punishment can lead to unwanted behaviour down the line and will make your dog less trusting of you.
We also know that dogs that receive no form of negative punishment learn faster and are less aggressive than those that do. You can read more about negative reinforcement dog training here.
How Clicker Training Can Reduce Bad Behaviour
As we wrote just above, training involves three different outcome categories. We know that clicker training is a great way to let dogs know that something good will happen to them, but what about the other two categories.
Negative reinforcement techniques often utilise the “things get worse” part, which is the one we want to avoid. Clicker training on the other hand makes use of the third of the three consequences “things stay the same and are unchanged”.
The benefit of this is that if things stay the same for your dog after they perform an action, they will be less likely to repeat the same behaviour in the future.
Making sure a dog does not get any rewards after bad behaviour is an important part of clicker training. It helps to train a dog quicker and will prevent bad habits from developing further.
In addition to this, clicker training gets the trainer to focus on good behaviours rather than trying to stop bad ones. This is important because dogs crave attention and any attention, whether it is good or bad, can be seen as a reward.
Focus on the Good, Not the Bad
When we train a dog we want to focus on the good things they do rather than the bad. For example, instead of trying to stop a dog from jumping up on people, you should reward them for keeping all four paws on the ground. Clicker training is excellent for this as it provides instant feedback.
So, How Do You Clicker Train a Dog?
Now that you know why clicker training is so effective and widely used, it is time to teach you how to implement it. But how do you do this? How will your dog associate the clicker with good things?
Before you can start using a clicker in regular training sessions, you need to prepare your dog for the clicker training experience. We do this through a process called ‘charging the clicker’.
What Is Charging the Clicker?
If you have decided that clicker training is for you and your dog, the first thing you need to do is make the clicking sound have a meaning. This means that you have to condition your dog to make them associate the clicker with a reward, which is usually but not exclusively a tasty treat.
Below we are going to show you how to charge the clicker in easy to follow steps. Once you successfully train your dog to use a clicker, the clicking sound alone is rewarding for your dog.
Training Your Dog to Respond to a Clicker
The first thing you need to do is find a nice quiet room or place where you can train together. The environment you are in needs to be free of distractions, so that your dog keeps their attention focused on you.
For the next step you need to have a container of treats with you and the clicker in your hand. Press the click and immediately throw your dog a treat. Once your dog has lost interest, repeat the same action.
Keep this up for several minutes, but make sure your dog is doing something different every time you click and throw them a treat. This is because you do not want your dog to associate the click with any other behaviour. You are focusing on the link between the clicking sound and the food reward.
Repeat this clicking and rewarding action about twenty times and then stop. Your dog will quickly learn that they will receive a treat after hearing a click. We recommend that you repeat this training process two or three times a day for a couple of days to really get the association ingrained into their mind.
How Is Clicker Training Used?
Once your dog associates the click with rewards you can begin to use it in other training sessions. For example, if you are training your dog to sit, click the clicker when they sit and give them a treat.
The great thing is that you don’t necessary have to reward your dog straight away. As the clicker is being charged through classical conditioning, your dog knows that they are going to be rewarded for their behaviour simply because the click was heard. All of the confusion is eliminated and your dog will learn quicker.
Clicker training can be used for almost anything. For example, you can click the exact moment your dog drops a ball, or when they fetch an item, or even when they go to the toilet. Clicker training can be used to stop your dog from pulling on their lead by rewarding them with a click when they are not pulling.
The great thing is that it doesn’t matter if the reward comes seconds after. Your dog will know that they are being rewarded as you marked the exact moment precisely. You can allow for a couple of seconds to pass between using the clicker to rewarding your dog, without worrying about whether they understand the reason for the reward.
When Is the Best Time to Use Clicker Training?
Clicker training is best used when you are teaching your dog a new command or behaviour. Once your dog has learnt the command or you are happy with their behaviour, you can begin to phase out the clicker completely. If you do not remove the clicker once your dog has completely learned a command, there is a danger they will only perform for the click and reward that follows.
Use the clicker to train a behaviour or command, and then start to use a cue word when the behaviour is performed. You can then take away the clicker and your dog should respond to the cue word.
Clicker training will not be used in everyday situations. It is a means to an end and that end is to train a behaviour.
Clicker Training Puppies
You may be wondering if you can clicker train a puppy and the answer is undoubtedly a yes! Puppies are ideal candidates for clicker training and you can start implementing it as soon as you get your puppy home. If you train your puppy to use a clicker at a young age, you can then use it for all the important commands later on down the track.
Clicker training is great for house training your dog as you can teach them to go to the toilet on command. You can also use clicker training when you are crate training your dog as well.
Does Clicker Training Work at a Distance?
One question you may be wondering is “does clicker training work at a distance?”. Can you use clicker training in a park or in a noisy environment? Does it work around other dogs? Surely it isn’t much use outside?
There are two factors that come into play here and they include:
- The role of the clicker
- The volume of the clicker (whether it is audible)
Your dog can almost certainly hear the clicker at a reasonable distance and they can be used outside. However, the role of the clicker is to mark good behaviour or events, not to get the dog to act. It is usually used in the initial stages of training, rather than at more advanced stages.
For example, once you have taught your dog to “come”, you should not need to use a clicker. Simply reward your dog when they return to you and leave it at that. Clicker training is used to teach the “come” command and the behaviour associated with it.
Clicker Training Pros and Cons
To wrap this article up we will finish off with the pros and cons of clicker training a dog. The benefits of clicker training are as follows:
- You can do multiple repetitions of the same behaviour without your dog losing interest or motivation.
- Your dog is working in a highly rewarding environment which encourages them to do better and try and please you.
- Training sessions can last longer with positive reward based training methods.
- Your dog will learn quicker because of the clicker. The clicker provides perfect timing which explains to your dog what was expected and what the perfect behaviour is.
- It helps build a great relationship between a dog and their owner/handler.
- Better than using a word as an event marker as the click is clear and concise, and won’t get confused with other things.
The most common negatives of clicker training are as follows:
- Clicker training uses a reward based concept, so those with dogs that have low drive for rewards may have trouble. Some dogs aren’t driven by food rewards or games, so can be much harder to train with clicker training.
- Clicker training requires are large amount of practice and precision. You need to time your clicks perfectly to match the action your dog is doing. If you do not, your dog may become confused and think that you are rewarding them for a different action.
- Clicker training cannot be continuously used as a reward. Once your dog has learned a behaviour or command, clicker training needs to be faded out.
Concluding How to Clicker Train a Dog
Clicker training is often talked about and recommended in dog owner circles. Taking advantage of your dog’s desire for rewards is the fastest and best way of training a dog. You can start clicker training as soon as you get your puppy home and it can even be used for older dogs as well. This guide should give you all the answers you need to know about clicker training dogs. If you have any questions, leave a comment below.