At its core, clicker training is a way to train a pet and rewards desirable behavior with a “click.” When your dog performs an intended behavior—sit, stay, heel—you “click” the handheld device. The click lets the dog know she’s performed the intended behavior and that you’re pleased. When you combine a clicker with other positive reinforcement practices you’re teaching your pet in a safe, effective and humane way.
Why use clicker training with your dog?
Positive reinforcement trainers say clicker training is a method they believe in and use. Dog trainer Geralynn Cada said, “Clicker training is a unique conditioning training method. As with all training methods it takes time and patience to teach your dog this reward system.”
A major benefit of clicker training is consistency in the “click” command, whereas verbal commands or hand signals can vary. Those variations can be confusing to pups. Additionally, if you’re in a loud area, your dog may not hear you; but he might hear the click and come running (if he’s been trained).
Learning how to use the clicker.
You can buy a dog training clicker online or in your favorite pet store. This clicker is a small, plastic handheld device that, when pressed, makes a clicking sound.
Before you can teach your dog how to respond, you need to know how to use the clicker. The most difficult thing for most pet parents to learn is they must click at the exact moment their dog performs the behavior they’re training. The click should immediately be followed by a reward (food, praise) so your dog will equate the sound with the reward.
“Click equals treat and praise,” Cada said. “It does have to happen, for example, if you’re teaching ‘sit’ as soon as his butt hits the ground, the click has to sound.” Your dog should think of the sound of the clicker as him being the winner of what you were asking of him. It can be a fun, bonding experience for the two of you.
Clicker training tip 1: The clicker and treat connection.
Prior to using the clicker for specific behavior training, you need to introduce your dog to the benefits of the clicker—trainers call this “charging” the clicker. To start the introduction, have the clicker in one hand and a treat in the other. For this session you are only getting your dog to respond to the clicker.
Click it and when your dog turns around to locate the source of the noise, give him a treat and praise him. Have a handful of treats and practice this repeatedly until he makes the connection that clicking sound equals treat.
Tip: Your dog may sniff your hand to get at the treat. Wait until he gets bored of trying to get it from your hand. When he walks away, click the clicker, then reward when your dog comes back.
Clicker training tip 2: Learning new commands.
Now that your dog understands that hearing the click means she gets a treat, you can use the clicker to train different commands including: sit, down, stay, come, and drop it.
Take your dog to a quiet location to begin the training. Choose the “sit” command. It’s easier to train your dog in an area where there are no distractions. You can use verbal cues as well as the clicker. You can say “sit” but you will use the clicker when the requested action has been achieved. Cada says, “If you’re standing in the kitchen and your dog comes to you on his own and sits at your side, use the clicker, give him a treat and praise him.
Tip: To teach your dog to sit, have a treat in your hand, move it slowly toward his nose then up and over his head until his butt naturally drops to the floor. Do this with the clicker, add the click at the precise second his butt touches the floor. Give your dog a treat the same time you click. Your dog will soon associate the action, the click and the treat.
Clicker training tip 3: The catching method.
Sometimes our dogs are naturally good at doing something on their own that you’d like to train them to do consistently. When this occurs, you’re going to use a clicker training method called “catching.” This means as soon as you see/catch your dog doing a behavior you want, click and treat when he does it.
If he, for example, is in a room with you and decides he is going to lie down on his bed, click as soon as he lies down and give him a treat. If he gets up to eat the treat, wait until he lies back down, click and treat. Repeat the process until he makes the connection. Since his act of lying down is earning him a click and a treat, it reinforces in his mind that he is performing an accepted (and wonderful!) behavior and the click and treat combination will keep him repeating the behavior.
Additional clicker training information.
When you use the clicker at every small step of a new behavior your dog has performed, it’s called “shaping.” This means you are using the clicker and offering an immediate reward for each small step your dog succeeds in doing.
Using the clicker and offering a reward is a way to offer positive reinforcement to shape desired behavior. The reward, praise, and click combination makes learning fun (and delicious) for your dog and will make her more likely to continue with the new behavior.
As with any positive reinforcement training method, practice and patience makes perfect. All training sessions should be kept short and should always be fun for you and your dog. You want your training sessions to be looked at by your dog as an enjoyable time and a way to bond with you.
Robbi Hess, award-winning author, is multi-petual: She shares her home with two Devon Rex kittens, three adult rescue cats, a mini poodle, a Goldendoodle, three lizards and two ferrets. When not caring for her pets, she is an editor, speaker, time management and productivity guru, content creator, social media manager and blogger. She writes at All Words Matter, My Divas Dish, and is the story editor and chief cat herder at Positively Woof.