Clicker training for dogs

Clicker training is a way of teaching dogs that many of you may have heard of, but what is it exactly? Anne Rogers, a dog trainer who runs her own excellent blog has given me permission to post her useful explanatory guide about the technique.

Using a Clicker in Dog Training

‘Clicker training’ is often talked about as being a new and easier way to train, however, while it has benefits it is not necessarily ‘new’ or a miracle dog trainer. Clickers can be used in many situations and can help to speed up learning – they are not suitable for every situation so we can use a clicker in your training program or develop a clicker training program for you and your dog.

What is a clicker?

A clicker is a small plastic box with a thin piece of metal inside that when pressed produces a ‘click click’ sound. Clickers are available in different styles from the straight forward model (left) to fancier ones that have a volume adjuster or can be set to produce different sounds.

How is the clicker used in dog training?

When the dog carries out the correct behaviour he gets a click. The sound of the clicker ‘marks’ the exact behaviour that earned the reward. The ‘click’ also acts as a bridge because it lets the dog know that the real reward is on its way.

What is clicker training?

Clicker Training and training with a clicker are considered to be two different methods. Training with a clicker means to simply use a clicker to reward desired behaviour – how you achieve that behaviour is up to you. Clicker Training involves waiting for the dog to offer desired behaviour and using the click to ‘capture’ the behaviour. Sometimes shaping will be used in Clicker Training; this means to set the scene so that the dog is more likely to offer the desired behaviour.

Why does the clicker work?

Once the dog understands what the clicker means the click is used to inform the dog that he has carried out the right behaviour the exact second he did the right thing – even if the dog is a distance away. Rewards work best if delivered with 1 or 2 seconds of the behaviour being rewarded (in fact even delivering a reward 2 seconds later is still only 20% effective). This means that you can speed up learning as the dog is rewarded far more efficiently, even if you can’t give a treat for a few more seconds.

Any sound could be used, you can even you use the word “good” or “yes” in the same way; however realise that a spoken word is not always consistent as you may deliver it in a slightly different tone thus changing the meaning to the dog. When training marine mammals, for example, different whistle tones are used to mark correct behaviour.

Charging Up you Clicker:

This means to teach your dog that ‘click’ means “yummy things are coming my way!”

  1. Start working in a quiet, distraction free place. Make sure you have your clicker and plenty of things that your dog likes.
  2. Click and give your dog a treat. It doesn’t matter what he is doing, at this stage.
  3. Click and treat (C+T) about 6 times and then take a break.
    If your dog is sensitive to sound or seems to be alarmed by the sound of the clicker, start by holding your clicker in your pocket or using a volume adjusting clicker.
  4. Repeat step 2. Click and treat about 10 times.
  5. Try clicking when the dog is not looking at you. Does he look at you when you click? This is a good sign that means he is beginning to get what the click means.
  6. After a few sessions practicing in a low distraction area, move to a slightly more distracting area.

Tips for Training with a Clicker:

  • Keep your hands by your side when you click. The clicker is not a remote control – you don’t need to point it at your dog and your hand movements will be the signal that your dog responds to.
  • Do not move towards the treat until AFTER you click. Otherwise you train your dog to respond to your hand movements rather than the click.
  • ALWAYS reward after a click – no exceptions, even if you click by accident.
  • Perfect timing is the key to perfect clicker training (in fact any dog training) – practice your timing.
  • Put your dog in another room and choose a TV show. Pick a behaviour such as every time no. 8 kicks the ball in a football match or every time your favourite character lifts their left hand – use your imagination! Click each time you see the behaviour being carried out – your time should improve with practice.
  • Practice getting your treats out quickly; this is particularly important when you first start using a clicker with your dog. The timing of the delivery of the treat can be relaxed as you progress with training.
  • Click as the dog carries out the desired behaviour, not at the end. The click ends the behaviour and if you click at the end the dog is likely to stop in his tracks and come back to you for a treat.
  • You only need to click ONCE. If the dog performs really well deliver more treats not more clicks.
  • Click whenever you see your dog doing something you like, from training exercises to your dog lying quietly when you watch TV.
  • You don’t have to wait to click for the entire behaviour – even if your dog offers a small step in the right direction towards the desired behaviour, you can click that and build from there. Keep raising the goal and guiding the dog towards perfecting the behaviour.
  • Click for any voluntary movements even if they are accidental – this will your dog clues as to what you want him to do.
  • You don’t have to just use treats with the clicker. You can charge your clicker with your dog’s favourite things such as toys, food, games or treats.
  • Never push or force your dog into position, if you have your dog on leash, tie to your belt so that you are not tempted to jerk or pull.
  • Keep sessions short and fun.
  • If you or your dog is getting frustrated put away the training tools and have a game instead. Come back to clicker training later and review your training strategy.
  • If your dog isn’t getting it, it’s not because he is disobeying you. You’re timing may be off, he may not know the exercise well enough yet or he may not be accustomed to working at this distraction level yet.
  • Click anytime the dog performs the correct behaviour. They will soon begin offering this behaviour all the time to earn a click. This is when you can introduce a cue word or hand signal.

For more information get Peggy Tillman’s book “Clicking with Your Dog” for step by step, click by click introduction to clicker training or Melissa C. Alexander’s “Click for Joy” for everything clicker.

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