Clicker training began to grow in popularity in the mid-1990s as an effective alternative to aversive training that relied on pain, fear, and intimidation to bully a dog into learning. Unlike traditional training techniques, clicker training is a variation of positive-reinforcement training with plenty of science behind it.
But what is a clicker, exactly?
A clicker is a small, handheld device that makes a “click” noise that takes the place of a “marker word.” In positive-reinforcement training, we reward a dog for behaviour that we like with something they find enjoyable and motivating. The “marker word” is the short 3–4 letter word we consistently use to inform our dog of the exact moment they’ve done something right.
My marker word (and one used by many trainers) is “YES!.” So, when I ask my dog to sit, the moment his bum hits the ground I say “YES!”
This allows me to communicate efficiently to my dog what exactly I liked in his behaviour, and solves the problem of taking too long to fish out a treat or locate a toy to reward my dog. By that time, he may have moved on to a completely different behaviour (possibly an undesirable one) or just forgotten what he did to earn the treat in the first place.
In clicker training, the clicker takes the place of my “YES!” If I ask my dog to sit, the moment his bum hits the ground, I click. My reward follows as quickly as possible.
Clicker training vs. marker words
A marker word and a clicker work the same way, but there are two major differences between them. These differences help account for the reasons that clicker training has become so popular.
First, a clicker is an unmistakable, distinct sound. We’re constantly offering our dogs words, and no matter what marker word you’ve chosen, it’s likely to be one your dog will hear at times that are irrelevant to their training, like when speaking to a friend or family member.
A click, though? That’s a sound that only occurs when you are actually holding a clicker and, chances are, you won’t be handling one unless you’re training your dog.
Second, the clicker is a neutral sound. It doesn’t convey happiness or sadness or any other emotional tone: it’s just a click. Using a neutral sound can take some of the confusion or stress your dog might feel around trying to determine your mood and help them focus better on the tasks at hand.
How to familiarise yourself with a clicker
For newbies, the thought of starting clicker training can be overwhelming. It’s difficult to imagine using a clicker in addition to all the other stuff you have to worry about when training your dog.
Really, the clicker is very simple to use and to integrate into your training, but practice will help. You’ll want to put a little effort into perfecting your mechanics before introducing clicker training to your dog.
Practicing for clicker training
Begin by holding the clicker in one hand and pressing the button with a finger from that same hand. Once you’ve got a feel for that, it’s time to practice the most crucial part of clicker training—timing.
Sitting down in front of a TV show or film, try clicking every time a particular actor appears on screen, every time a particular word is said, or in sync with some other detail that occurs randomly but regularly. Be sure to decide in advance exactly what you’ll be clicking for.
Once you’ve got this down, move on to your dog. Begin by clicking every time your dog looks at you. Follow your click with a food reward. The sequence should go like this:
- Dog looks at you (either on his own or because you’ve gotten his attention)
- Click the moment he looks
- Immediately follow the click with a treat
Repeat this several times until you’ve gotten the hang of delivering the reward. This exercise teaches your dog that the click is both meaningful and awesome.
Capturing and shaping behaviour with clickers
In the simplest terms, capturing a behaviour means informing your dog that something they’ve done naturally is great. For example, if you click and reward your dog every time you notice them in the process of lying down on their bed, your dog is learning that you like it when they lie down on their bed. The more they’re clicked and rewarded for that behaviour, the more frequently they’ll practice it.
Shaping your dog involves capturing. When you “shape” your dog, you click and reward for small movements that add up to a larger goal. Begin by deciding what your big-picture goal is, for example, getting your dog to lie down on their bed without cueing them to do so.
Once you’ve decided, click and reward your dog for each small movement toward the final goal, gradually raising your criteria as you go. Once you’ve raised the criteria, don’t reward anymore for the previous criteria. Here’s how it could work:
Goal 1: My dog spontaneously looks in the direction of the bed
Goal 2: My dog takes a step toward the bed
Goal 3: My dog stands near the bed
Goal 4: My dog stands on the bed
Goal 5: My dog sits on the bed
Goal 6: My dog lies on the bed
How to train with a clicker
The clicker can be used for any kind of training that involves learning by consequence (operant conditioning) or learning by association (classical conditioning), with one big exception: a clicker can’t be used for “traditional” types of training that require methods that intimidate, frighten or cause pain. Clickers can’t be used to “correct” a dog; they are useful only for marking desirable behaviours.
Does this mean a clicker can’t be used to help fix problem behaviours like jumping on guests or barking? No. But using the clicker to correct these behaviours requires you to mark and reward your dog when they make an alternative choice that is preferable to the problem behaviour.
Tips for successful clicker training
- Get a clicker with a wristband to keep it tethered to you in case you drop it or need to use your hand for something else.
- Use a bait bag or treat pouch to hold your food rewards. You only have two hands; a bag lets you keep treats close and hands free.
- The clicker does not cue your dog to do something, so don’t use it like a remote control. Remember that the clicker marks the moment your dog has done something worth rewarding. Not the other way around.
- Keep your training sessions short. Dogs learn better in bursts of 3–10 minutes than they do in long 30–60 minute sessions.
Troubleshooting with clicker training
If your dog is having trouble with a particular behaviour, they may not understand what you want from them. If, for example, my dog doesn’t understand that lowering my hand to the ground with my palm facing down is a request to lie down, that action will not be successful until I define it more clearly.
Instead of looking for my dog to lie down when I lower my hand, I can try dropping the criteria so that I begin by clicking and rewarding each time my dog follows my hand enough to bend toward the ground. Once they can do that consistently, I can up the criteria by looking for my dog to both curve toward the ground and stretch out one paw, and click and reward for that. Eventually, our criteria will return to looking for my dog to follow my hand into a full down.