Dog Clicker Training Basics

Many dog owners have heard of clicker training but don’t have much practical experience with it. Clicker training is extremely useful in a wide variety of dog training endeavors. However, while the theory is fairly simply, the technique can trip up novice trainers. I’ll try to give you an understanding of what the clicker’s sound means to your dog so that the theory is easier to apply!

Did I do OK?

Let’s start with the word ‘reinforcement’. The simplest way to put it is; reinforce a behavior and it’s more likely to happen again. Very much like what we think of as a reward, no? So when using positive reinforcement to teach your dog a specific behavior, your role is to ensure that the behavior is consistently rewarded (with a treat or perhaps a game of tug). This is where a clicker comes in handy. You will click your clicker when: your new puppy steps into his crate; the doorbell rings and your dog sits still rather than barking; you tell your dog to “leave it” and he looks away from the tasty morsel on the floor. The click tells him, “good job!” right then and there. Trainers call this a reward marker.  Once you’ve marked the good behavior, you can deliver the reward. Your standard “good boy!” can also serve as a reward marker, but there are several advantages to a clicker:

  • In most cases, a reward will only reinforce a particular behavior if it’s given immediately after the behavior is performed. Once your dog understands that a click means a reward is coming, you can easily teach him that this is still the case even if the reward takes a little while to get to him. This makes it easier to reward a behavior from a distance or simply to take a moment to get a treat out of the cupboard.
  • In your dog’s mind, any reward marker he hears applies to the most recent behavior performed. Because a clicker makes a very brief sound, and because it can be used from a good distance or when you’re unable to speak, it’s great for marking very specific behaviors you might otherwise not be able to mark in time.
  • Dogs are masters of discrimination. They notice miniscule differences that we often do not. Therefore, the variations in wording and intonation that often accompany verbal reward markers such as “good boy,” can have unintended effects on your dogs’ behavior. The consistency of the sound a clicker makes solves this problem.

Clicker technique takes a little practice, but it’s well worth the effort. It can be a big help with everything from simple commands, to aggression on leash, to dog sports. So grab a clicker and get training!

Further Reading
Don’t Shoot the Dog– By Karen Pryor
Getting Started: Clicker Training for Dogs– By Karen Pryor

Guest Contributor–Danielle Grand has spent the last decade working to parlay her affinity for animals into a dog training career. While earning her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, she was involved in an experimental study on canine cognition. She has also obtained her dog training certification from Animal Behavior College and attended numerous dog training seminars conducted by respected behaviorists. At home in New York’s capital region, she works closely with colleagues and mentors to expand her expertise; she hopes to help forge strong, happy relationships between many dogs and their humans.

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