Clicker training is a dog training method that has exploded in popularity in recent years, as animal lovers move towards training techniques that rely on positive reinforcement rather than old-fashioned forms of fear- and punishment-based training.
Clicker training is quick, effective, and enjoyable for both you and your dog. Once your dog understands the idea behind the strange clicking noises they’re suddenly hearing, the lightbulb will go off and you will be in an excellent position to teach your dog any kind of tricks, from advanced behavioral techniques to cute and clever party tricks.
Read on for a clicker training overview, including the psychology behind clicker training and some essential tips and tricks to help you and your dog master the art of clicker training.
The Psychology Behind Clicker Training
Clicker training works because it adheres to basic psychological theories that explain why dogs are motivated to do certain things. Dogs are highly motivated by rewards (not unlike humans), and the basic psychology behind clicker training is that any behavior that is effectively rewarded will be reinforced in the dog’s mind, making it more likely that the dog will repeat that behavior in the future.
Similarly, behavior that is not rewarded (note that “not rewarded” implies behavior being ignored, and certainly not punished) is weakened and less likely to be repeated by the dog. Whether you’re wondering how to train an aggressive dog or are looking to teach your new puppy some essential obedience training and bonus party tricks, the psychology of dog behavior remains the same: Behaviour that is rewarded will be repeated.
Clicker training is an excellent and uncomplicated way of putting this psychological theory into practice. Dogs soon come to learn that when they perform a desired action, they will immediately hear a click sound which will shortly be followed by a food reward.
At the outset, clicker training requires that you catch the dog performing a desired behavior, such as coming when called. As soon as that behavior is noticed, the click sound is produced, which has already been established as a positive event. The dog knows that food reward will shortly follow, strengthening the association in the dog’s mind between the click sound and the positive emotions of a food reward.
Why not just skip the click and give a food reward? Because the physical action of handing a food reward to a dog is likely to get in the way of the action they’re performing. For example, if you’re trying to teach your dog to come when called, leaping forward and giving your dog a food reward as soon as they start to come towards you interrupts that movement and ultimately confuses your dog.
Hearing the clicking sound will activate the reward center in your dog’s brain, but will not prevent them from completing the task as requested. Immediately after the task is finished, follow up the initial reward (the click sound) with a food reward. In this way, you are able to combine the immediacy required when training a dog with a desirable food reward.
Essential First Steps
Before you can use clicker training to teach or reinforce positive behaviors, you will first need to help your dog understand the clicking noise and what it represents. Dogs of all ages will quickly pick up on a clicking cue, making clicker training an ideal training method to use when raising a newborn puppy or teaching new tricks to an old dog.
To familiarise your dog with the click sound and to help them understand what it means, you first need to show your dog that every time they hear the clicking sound they will very shortly be rewarded. Wait until you’re in a quiet and relaxed environment, then hold the clicker out of sight. Perform a clear click and then give your dog a food reward within three seconds. You’ll only need to repeat this pattern of click and reward, click and reward, a few times before your dog will make the association in their mind.
Next, it’s time to catch your dog in the act of performing a positive action, then immediately click and reward. Monitor your dog and wait until they do something positive, such as lying quietly on their bed, going to the bathroom in the correct place, or playing nicely with a toy, then click and reward. This will have the dual effect of reinforcing existing positive behaviors while also familiarising your dog with this new technique of clicking and rewarding.
You’ll know you’re ready to move on to introducing new tricks and behaviors when your dog can pass this simple test: Wait until your dog’s attention is elsewhere, then sound the clicker. If your dog immediately looks at you and appears to be waiting for their food reward, you’ll know the click sound is firmly embedded in your dog’s mind and your real training can begin!
Tips and Tricks to Master Clicker Training
To help you master clicker training and get the best results from your dog, follow these simple tips:
- Click as soon as you recognize that your dog is starting to perform the desired action. It is not necessary to wait until after the action has been completed. Remember that one of the key benefits of clicker training is that administering the click does not interfere with or interrupt the action your dog is taking. Click as soon as possible.
- Aim to follow-up a click with a food reward within three seconds of the action being completed.
- Keep your training sessions as short as 5 or 10 minutes each. Rather than devoting hours at a time to teaching your dog new tricks, look for ways of integrating short bursts of clicker training into your everyday routine.
- Ignore bad behavior completely, and reward the corresponding good behavior. For example, ignore accidents on the rug and use clicker training methods to reward your new puppy for going to the bathroom in the correct spot. Similarly, ignore instances of leash pulling and click every time your dog walks nicely with a relaxed leash.
- Combine clicker training with crate training to make potty training and overall life with your dog a breeze.
- Use clicker training to reward and encourage behaviors and mannerisms that you find cute, like “smiling”, lying in a certain position, or cocking their head. Dogs have no way of knowing which of their natural mannerisms you find appealing, and clicker training is an excellent way of telling your dog what you like.
- Only ever use your clicker when you’re relaxed, in a good mood, and feeling positive about your dog and their training. Having your dog associate clicker training with anger or frustration will slow down their training progress.
By now you should have a good understanding of how you can use clicker training techniques to teach your dog any kind of behavioral, obedience, or party trick you like. Not only is clicker training a fast, effective, and fun training method for dogs of any age, it has also successfully been used to train cats, horses, birds, and a variety of other animals.
Clicker training is an excellent way of developing a loving, trusting bond between human and animal.
About The Author:
James Woller is a long-time dog enthusiast, and owner of Release the Hounds and Jet Pet Resort, professional dog walking and boarding companies in Vancouver, Canada. On his days off from running his companies, he enjoys learning and writing about topics that are of interest to caring pet owners.