Clicker Training

Clicker Training Explained

Have you ever heard of clicker training before? It is a very effective and elegant way of training your dog positively and clearly. We utilize the clicker to explain to the dog exactly what it is that we like him to do. Clicker training can speed up the training process considerably and help the dog understand us better. We cannot talk to him to tell him how we want him to behave – but using a clicker is as close as it will get to being able to speak to him!

border collie tricks

My own dog Kix and me showing off some clicker tricks.

Up until 10-15 years ago, clicker training was mostly used by professional animal trainers, such as the performers at marine mammal parks or trainers at movie sets. Only recently has it become a more popular training method among dog owners. While the concept of clicker training has been around since the 1940s, it took quite a while to be widely known. Clicker training works for all animals – not just dogs, but also horses, cats, birds, rats and even fishes!

It is an elegant and effective way to pair an action that the dog does with the reward that follows.

two dogs hugging

And a clicker trick with both Kix and Fusion.

So the clicker… rewards the dog?

No, not really. We can never move away from the positive reinforcement that will encourage our dogs’ behavior – food and/or toys. What the clicker does is connect the dog’s action with the reward that follows right after. In order to understand how the clicker works we need to look into the process of operant conditioning and the use of a marker.

chinese crested powderpuff

My Chinese Crested Party also wants to show some tricks.

From action to consequence

Every behavior we teach our dog is trained through some variation of the concept: dog does an action – we provide a consequence.

If for example we teach a young dog to sit, we would take a treat, lure the dog into a sit and then give him the cookie. The dog learns – following the cookie and sitting down pays off, and he is more likely to do it again the next time.

clicker training dog

Using a “bridge”

Let’s say that your puppy is a very energetic dog who can barely sit still for a second. If you want to teach him to sit, it might be that by the time you get the cookie ready to hand it over to the dog, he has already done five other things – waved, stood up, turned in a circle, jumped up on you and barked. How can he know he gets the cookie for sitting, and none of the other behaviors? We need to have a more precise way to tell him what exactly it is that we are rewarding.

What we are using is a sound that is also called a bridge or a marker. It links the action we are rewarding (sitting) with the cookie we are giving our dog. Many owners use verbal markers such as “yes!” whenever their dog does something right, and then immediately reach into their pocket to deliver a treat. Using a clicker is just another option for a marker.

dog clicker training

Does that mean I always have to carry a clicker?

One of the most common arguments against using a clicker that I hear is that it is cumbersome to have to always carry a clicker when one is wanting the dog to behave. Thankfully, that is not the case! (Or my own dogs would never do anything right – I have lost probably around a hundred clickers during my time of dog training, and often find myself without one.)

The clicker is only a tool that makes training quicker and more efficient. As in the sit example – what makes the dog sit is the reinforcement history that he has. If you have been rewarding your dog for sitting, he will see value in sitting for you. The clicker does not determine at all whether or not he sits, what determines that is whether you have shown him that sitting pays off in form of treats (or playtime)!

The clicker is like your phone ringing

The clicker (or the clicking sound) itself actually has no positive value whatsoever for your dog. The first time you use it your dog is probably not going to be the least bit excited – he does not understand yet that clicking and treating is related.

We turn the clicker in a so-called “conditioned reinforcer”. There are primary reinforcers that everyone finds reinforcing from birth (such as food), and conditioned reinforcers that are taught to be valuable through experience (such as money). The clicker is the latter, and can also be compared to the sound of a phone ringing.

Remember a time without annoying automatic calls that want to sell you health care or dubious vacations? (I know – seems long ago, doesn’t it!)

Every time you heard the phone ring you knew that you were receiving a call from a friend or family member. Hearing the phone ring made you happy, before you even picked up. The sound of your phone was closely linked to hearing another familiar person’s voice on the other end.

clicker training

Things have changed a bit since, haven’t they? My phone rings many times a day with calls from clients, family, friends – and about as many (some days more!) spam calls. Sometimes I do not even feel motivated to pick up, because the same automated voice message wanting to sign me up for the grand trip I won already called four times that day.

clicker training means

See how the same sound can have contrasting meanings? It is just the same with the clicker. You give the clicker meaning by keeping the promise that every time your dog hears the click, he knows a treat will come.

If you were to (what I do not recommend) use the clicker to click when your dog does something right, but then skip rewarding him, the clicker would over time lose its meaning, just like the ringing phone. The positive reinforcement needs to come separately from the clicker – as soon as we stop pairing the two our clicker will lose its power.

What should you use the clicker for?

It is not important to use the clicker for behaviors that your dog either knows well already, or that he does for a long enough time to deliver the rewards and make clear what they are for.

Here is an example for the later:

If you are practicing a recall (need some extra help with that? Our Recall Online Class can help!) and you call your dog and he comes running to you to get his treat or toy as a reinforcement, it is very clear to the dog what he just got rewarded for. We don’t need a clicker to mark the exact moment in which he is doing the correct thing (in fact, the entire time he is running towards us he is correct!). The progression of “Come” – dog comes running – dog gets a reward does not require any word bridging the action to the consequence.

A distracted dog — the perfect moment to use a clicker

Let’s look at a scenario in which using a clicker comes in handy. Dogs tend to be very distracted when they are in new and unknown environments and situations. Nearly every dog is for example overwhelmed by the excitement of going to a group training class the first time.

The very first lesson in any puppy class is usually pretty wild – puppies pulling on leash (up to the point that their front feet leave the ground), barking, straining to sniff and play with each other. Owners are at the other end of the leash partly helpless, partly frustrated. It is impossible to start training sit, down and heel without the puppies paying attention to their humans at first.

My go-to solution is for everybody to step a bit further away from each other (if necessary, to the corners of the room) and just wait for the dogs to relax a little bit. Once we have some distance between the puppies, they calm down enough to stop pulling quite as intensely and start to look around. While they look around, they might glance at their owner for just a split second. Yes! Click and treat. Without a clicker, this moment of brief attention would be much too short to reach into the treat pouch, get out a treat and deliver it to the dog – his eyes would have already darted at eight different things in the meantime and he would have no idea what he just got rewarded for.

With the clicker however, we can make it very clear to the dog that it is his focus (however short at first) that gets rewarded!

As the dog understands what we are rewarding him for, he will make an effort to repeat the behavior to get more treats. Eventually we get longer and longer focus, and the puppy class is calmed down enough to start training!

Using the clicker for “shaping”

The clicker can teach your dog behaviors or tricks via shaping better than anything else. In shaping we click for small steps that eventually lead our dog to learning a complete behavior.

Clicking and treating for your dog’s brief attention already was shaping – instead of waiting for him to give you a minute of uninterrupted eye contact, you started out with rewarding him for just a second of it. Eventually he got better and better and offered you longer and longer periods of eye contact. You shaped the behavior, starting with very little and working towards the goal behavior (like you would shape an object from clay).

You can teach your dog a variety of tricks using shaping. While you can use luring for some tricks (every trick that is “lead by the head”, such as for example teaching your dog to spin left and right), all tricks that are not “lead by the head” need some different approach (such as backing up, or lifting a back paw – hard to lure that!).

At first you want to teach your dog to understand that the clicker can mark not only his eye contact or sit, but also any kind of movement he does with his body. The three videos below will help you to get your dog started to recognize the clicker as a marker for his legs.

Tutorial part 1/3

Tutorial part 2/3

Tutorial part 3/3

Now that your dog understands the clicker as a marker for leg movements, you can teach him a variety of tricks – for example backing up:

Should you charge the clicker?

It used to be a practice to “charge the clicker” before using it in training. In this process the dog would hear a click and have a treat delivered right after without doing anything himself. This would happen at the very beginning of clicker training, before the dog every learned a single behavior with the clicker.

The pairing of click and treat would happen many times – some trainers suggested 30, 50 or 100 combinations of click and treat without the dog doing anything to earn those treats. I personally do not believe that this is necessary or smart – here is why:

The difficulty in understanding clicker training for the dog is not linking the sound of a click with the appearance of a treat. That’s basic classical conditioning and happens very fast, without the dog even thinking about it.

The real difficulty is for the dog to be aware enough of his actions and movements that he knows what he was doing in the moment he heard the clicker. What was his body doing? Was he moving his legs? Can he reproduce the action in order to earn another click and treat?

By charging the clicker – which, again, means click and treat without the dog doing anything – we are actually lying to our dog about the meaning of the clicker.

We say “Hey look, here is this new cool device that makes treats appear every time you hear the sound, and the sound will happen randomly, not related to what you are doing”.

Then after giving our dog this experience 30, 50, 100 times; we suddenly turn around and say:

“Ha, tricked you. You actually make the click happen and it is now on you to do that.”

This will not make learning faster! Linking click and treat is extremely easy and happens on the go as you are training. I never charged the clicker with my own dogs or clients’ dogs (besides just training with), and they all learn very quickly what it means. I believe that a dog understands faster that he can make the click happen if we do not first show him that the click is random.

Time to get training!

Have fun trying out the clicker with your dog. Use very small pieces of food, you will need many of them as you saw in the videos! Once your dog “gets it”, clicker training is a really fun and engaging way to make your dog think in training.