Clicker training has become increasingly popular, not just among professional and hobby dog trainers, but also with new owners who are just starting out on their journey of training their dog.
In fact, there are dog trainers who outfit every new client with a treat bag and a clicker regardless of the issue the dog is working on.
Is this actually useful or a fad? Does any training improve by using a clicker, or might it even get slowed down by it in some situations?
Let's look at what the clicker does, where it helps us in dog training and where it can be superfluous.
No Really, I Love My Clicker
Before anybody thinks this is an anti-clicker manifesto, let me tell you: I love my clickers. I train my dogs with them every day and I am far from giving up clicker training. They are a fantastic high-precision tool and provide much needed clarity for dogs that are learning new behaviors which at first only occur for a short moment.
Quick Action, Quick Marker
The clicker shines as a way to mark the split second in which a dog does something correctly. This makes it invaluable whenever you teach your dog something that at first in fact only happens for a very brief moment. Behaviors like this can be a Sit Pretty (the dog sitting up like a meerkat), which requires the dog to find his point of balance - marking this with a clicker works great. It could also be a running contact on the dogwalk that you are training your dog to do in agility. By the time you would be able to yell your verbal marker, your dog has long left the contact - a clicker is highly useful in telling him exactly in which moment he was right (when his feet hit the contact, and not 2 strides later).
For me, clickers are needed in the following cases:
The running contact is an example for this. Another one would be teaching your dog to rebound and clicking for his hind feet pushing off of you, or a dog learning to file his nails on a piece of sandpaper.
I have several videos here explaining free shaping. Basically, you are starting out with the dog not having any idea of what you are looking for, and through clicking for successful approximations for the final behavior your dog slowly understands what you had in mind. Since these correct approximations will only occur randomly at first, we need to be quick to catch them - making this a perfect use of the clicker.
Even if your dog knows what you want (and you have completed the free-shaping phase in which he had no idea yet what the final behavior is), does not mean he is physically capable of doing it yet. Any balance-dependent behavior, such as free-standing handstands, free-standing side legs, the aforementioned sit pretty etc. can be taught much faster by marking the balance point when you see it.
You do not actually need a clicker to explain many - even advanced - tricks that do not fit these categories. All tricks in our online tricks class for example can be taught without one.
Long Action, No Marker?
Now we will look at behaviors that are not just occurring for a split second. I would argue that most behaviors of basic obedience and manners are such that, even at the beginning, they should not only happen for a very brief moment. Take loose leash walking, for example: If a dog is so highly distracted that (even when the handler does not move) the leash only comes taunt for a split second before the dog races into a different direction, we should probably change the environment first to make it more suitable for learning - not just take a clicker!
Using a clicker with a dog that is so highly distracted and excited might just encourage him to be even more aroused and unable to pay attention. The precision a clicker provides requires a dog who is focused enough to understand it - we need him to be focused and stay focused. Some of the worst outcomes of clicker training are dogs that disconnect from their handler, then spin around on a dime waiting for their click and treat. This is the dog training the handler his own version of clicker training!
What about a simple Sit Stay? The only moment I would use a clicker is when I release my dog from the position (though most of the time, I don't).
[Originally, clickers were terminal bridges (ending a behavior), though you can of course explain the clicker to your dog in any way you want, so this alone would not discourage you from using it for duration behaviors.]
For me, intermittent treats combined with verbal praise (and/or an intermediate bridge) are much more effective than clicking and treating. This is especially true if the dog has mostly known the clicker in the context of free shaping. He could grow confused about whether a withheld reward in a stationary position means he has not yet done the behavior long enough - or he should be creative and try something else just like in free shaping (more about this confusion here).
Beginner Clicker Trainers Are ... Well, Beginners.
I personally have never started out a client new to training by placing a clicker in their hand. I have yet to meet the person who has impeccable timing and masters the motor skills required for very precise clicker training in their first session (I don't think that person exists!). Unless the behavior you want to teach specifically requires it, using a clicker probably slows down learning for owners new to training.
They already have enough to juggle with the leash, treats, instructions ... handling a clicker on top of it and handling it with less than ideal timing is unlikely to make training clearer for dog or owner. I strive to make training simple and easy to understand for the dog - and for his person. The more you can boil it down to the most necessary, the easier it will be for the owner to put into action!
Especially for instructing beginner trainers, remember:
Don't use a clicker just because it's trendy. Look carefully at what you are teaching, and decide if it will be best explained by using a clicker - or maybe, depending on the behavior, not?