Clicker training is one of the fastest and most efficient ways to teach your dog commands or tricks. The clicker serves as a marker to indicate that what your dog is doing is correct, and that they will receive a reward soon.
Marking good behavior with the clicker allows a dog trainer to give consistent feedback to the dog. Saying “good”, “yes”, “super”, or any other marker word is perfectly fine, but these don’t always sound the same. There are many ways to say a word. Even when we speak to each other, different tones can lead to confusion. Imagine how it must be for a dog that doesn’t understand our human language!
We can try to be consistent in how we say the marker words, but when dog training gets intense, it can be difficult to maintain consistency if we are saying the word passionately. That’s where the clicker offers a consistent way to mark good behavior during dog training to let your dog know a reward is coming soon.
There are many benefits to clicker training which go beyond simply marking desirable behaviors. This article will explain how to clicker train a dog, the benefits of clicker training, and the types of dog training where using a clicker can be beneficial.
What is clicker training?
The clicker is a secondary reinforcer used in positive reinforcement training. Like other types of reinforcers, it is a tool to reward your dog for the behaviors you want them to perform. It helps to make things easier by eliminating the confusion caused by marker word tone variations.
The clicker is also a way to give instant feedback to dogs. When your dog does the things you want them to do, you must reward them instantly. It takes a few seconds to reach for a treat. This isn’t much for us, but it can seem like an eternity for dogs – especially for puppies with shorter attention spans.
The click marks the moment they do what we want them to do, and lets them know that a reward is on the way. The reward can be anything your dog values. Although most dogs enjoy a tasty treat, the reward can be anything your dog wants, like petting or a short game of fetch.
When can you start clicker training a dog?
You can begin clicker training as young as four to six weeks old – almost as soon as you bring your new puppy home. In fact, conditioning the clicker as a secondary reinforcer and using it during puppy training sessions can help them learn faster than if you didn’t use it! The clicker can also be used to stop undesirable puppy behaviors such as biting.
The benefits of clicker training
As mentioned, the clicker serves as a consistent marker signal. It helps to ensure that a dog understands that a specific behavior is desirable, so their trainer doesn’t have to wonder if they actually ‘get it’. The click is always the same and isn’t affected by our mood or environment. Even the echoing in a room can confuse your dog. Clicker training makes giving feedback to dogs a lot easier, as opposed to simply saying a marker word.
With clicker training, you can reinforce very specific behaviors. For example, when teaching your dog to roll over, you can click for the initial down; follow up with another when they lie on their side; and finally, when the rollover is complete. This tells the dog each behavior is what you want them to do. With practice, they will understand that they won’t be getting a reward just for laying down or turning to their side, but when they fully complete the desired behavior. This will help them bring the pieces together and complete the desired command in full.
Another benefit of clicker training is you can give feedback to your dog from a distance. If your dog is working at a distance from you, it is very difficult to reward them immediately. You can’t just toss a treat from a distance to make them understand that what they are doing is correct. Instead, the clicker tells the dog that they accomplished the desired task and will get a reward in return. This also speeds up the training process when introducing your dog to complex commands.
The power of giving positive feedback to your dog from a distance makes various types of dog training easier. Many dog trainers utilize clickers, including working dog trainers and service dog trainers. It can make advanced training more manageable by giving assurance to your dog remotely or dissecting the command into several parts.
Examples of how you can utilize clickers in dog training
The clicker can be used in many different ways, depending on your training objectives. Its versatility across different types of dog training makes the clicker an essential item for any dog trainer.
Basic obedience training
The clicker is excellent for basic obedience training because it instantly gives positive feedback. You can use a clicker to teach your dog basic commands like sit, wait, or drop it.
Advanced obedience training
Clickers are also useful for advanced obedience training. You can maintain control over your dog off-leash using a clicker by encouraging good behavior when it occurs.
Service dog training
A service dog is able to do things for their handlers with disabilities. Whether retrieving things from the floor or opening the fridge to bring water, clicker training is utilized in many stages of service dog training.
Scent work training
When you want a dog to sniff to find something – such as in scent work training – clickers come in handy for encouraging them to locate the desired object. It gives positive feedback to the dog when they locate a target odor.
Agility work training
Making your dog walk over a see saw or go through a tunnel and associating this behavior with positive reinforcement straight away is challenging. Utilizing clicker training gives feedback to the dog immediately, ensuring they know that what they did was the expected behavior. The clicker can also be used to teach a dog to touch the contact points on agility equipment when they are making their way through or over the obstacles.
How to clicker train your dog
Clicker training should start with the trainer first. As with lots of things in dog training, timing is everything! If a trainer’s timing is off when a dog performs the correct behavior, the dog may not understand why there is a click.
Practice with the clicker first to instantly give feedback to your dog. There are several ways to hone your clicking skills, but the easiest is dropping a tennis ball and clicking at the moment it touches the floor. Over time, you can drop the ball and click every time it bounces from the floor. This practice will make you more responsive, and clicking will become second nature when you need it.
Once you master using the clicker, begin clicker training by introducing the click to your pup. Have 20 to 30 bite-size treats ready, and choose a quiet part of the house to avoid things that might distract your dog. With a treat in one hand and a clicker in the other, click and give your dog a treat. This process is commonly known as charging the clicker.
It shouldn’t take long for your dog to associate the click with a reward, but every dog learns at their own pace. Some understand this in a matter of minutes; some take several days. Practice and consistency are key for getting through this initial phase of clicker training.
After your dog understands that click means reward, you can focus on teaching your dog a command and click before giving a treat. If your dog prefers another reward, such as praise or toys, you can still associate these motivators with the clicker. It is vital to click and reward immediately. For example, while teaching your dog how to sit, gently encourage them to sit, and when they do, click and reward. You can then introduce the vocal commands to give direction to your dog and click and reward following the desired behavior.
Clicker training is relatively simple, but it takes repetition for dogs to understand a command fully. If you notice your dog becoming bored or losing interest during a training session, stop and give them a break. Short practice sessions throughout the day are much more effective than a long, boring one.
Clickers are helpful training tools that can be a fantastic addition to any dog training program! The click is something your dog will always understand and associate with good behavior.
Make sure to use the clicker only for training purposes. Using the clicker to get your dog’s attention will create only confusion.
These tiny training tools can work wonders when utilized right, enabling you to teach your dog various commands quickly and consistently.
This article was originally posted on December 4, 2013, and was updated on December 9, 2022.