A clicker-trained dog is a dog that has learned how to THINK!
Clicker training is the most positive form of training used with dogs and other animals. It is the same type of training used with marine animals, like dolphins and whales; however with those animals, trainers use a whistle instead of a little toy box that sounds like a cricket (the clicker!). Believe it or not, you can clicker-train parrots and other birds, you can clicker-train chickens and horses. You can even clicker-train a gold fish!
When trainers use the clicker, we are using that sound to instantly mark a behavior, and immediately afterward the dog is rewarded with a food treat or some other reinforcer. The dog quickly learns that when he hears that sound, he's done something that we like. We've actually made a promise to him that anytime he hears the click, he will get a treat.
The sound of the clicker may become more rewarding to some dogs than the treat itself. When I trained my Border Collie Jack using this method, he got very excited anytime he saw me bring out the clicker, and sometimes he actually forgot to come and get his treat! Clicker training provides motivation for learning new behaviors!
When using clicker training, we can motivate learning of new behaviors very quickly. If dealing with some serious behavior problems, we're able to get much quicker results when (1) changing a dog's negative emotions about something he is fearful of; (2) preventing inappropriate behaviors by teaching alternative or incompatible behaviors; and (3) shaping behaviors to encourage the dog to think, and to teach the dog to choose behaviors we like.
At no time are corrections or punishments used when clicker training. This helps our dogs trust us and want to work with us, rather than our teaching avoidance behaviors. Clicker trained dogs learn how to control consequences for their behaviors so that those behaviors will work for them. They *think* they're training us, when we are actually training them.
Once the dog forms better habits, we then replace the clicker with other forms of rewards, like games of fetch, praise, petting, tug games, long walks, etc.
CLICK/TREAT: HOW DO I GET STARTED
In order to teach your dog what clicker training is all about, you need to classically condition him to the sound, and then produce a treat within 1/2 second afterward. This is called "charging the clicker."
Prepare for your first lesson by having your clicker in hand and a pocketfull of soft treats. You want to use soft foods so your dog doesn't start choking. Have your dog sit in front of you. Click the clicker once, and then offer the dog his treat. Click once again, and treat again. You'll want to repeat this about 15 times. By the time you're finished with this exercise, your dog will learn that everytime he hears that click sound, he can rest assured that he's going to get a tasty tid-bit of food.
If your dog already knows how to sit and/or lie down on command, go back to having him do these basic behaviors. Tell your dog to sit. As soon as his butt hits the floor, click and treat (c/t). Praise him also. Go all over your house and ask your dog for sits everywhere. When he sits, c/t. Then ask your dog to lie down. The moment his entire body is flat against the floor, c/t and praise him. Go around the house asking for downs and c/t each one of them. Once you go through these initial exercises, your dog will have already fallen in love with clicker training. The more you use it, the better he'll love it.
When you're first getting started, keep your clicker handy and have treats with you as often as possible. The more clicker training you do, the more appropriate behaviors you wil be able to mark and reward.
CAN I STILL USE CLICKER TRAINING IF MY DOG IS AFRAID OF NOISES?
Sometimes we can, but sometimes we can't. If your dog is severely noise-phobic, you may want to substitute the sound of the click with a click of your tongue or by clicking a pen. Or, you can use a vocal reward-marker, such as the word "Yes!"
I have been able to use clicker training on a few noise-phobic dogs by introducing the sound of the clicker at a distance. It might be a good idea for someone to help you click the clicker from upstairs in your house behind a door while you give your dog a treat after he hears it. Little by little, your helper should come just a tad closer while clicking.
If your dog becomes fearful at anytime, either go back to creating more distance to desensitize him to the sound or discontinue using it altogether. You want to avoid having your dog associate this noise that he's afraid of with YOU!
WHAT DOES "SHAPING BEHAVIORS" MEAN?
Shaping behaviors means that we reward small increments of behaviors that leads to a final goal behavior. For example, if you want to teach a dog to go into his crate, you would click/treat if he glanced at the crate, click/treat if he took a step toward the crate, click/treat if he put his nose in the crate, click/treat if he put a paw in the crate, click/treat if he walked into the crate (we could "jackpot" that one!). So rewarding little bits of behaviors that lead up to what you're wanting to teach the dog to do is referred to as "shaping" behaviors.
Have some fun with your dog and just sit quietly and pretend to ignore him and any behavior he offers that you like, click/treat him for it. A clicker-savvy dog that knows what clicker training is all about is usually very happy to know that the clicker is being used, and will offer many fun and interesting behaviors in order to hear the sound of that click.
IS THE TIMING OF THE CLICK IMPORTANT?
Absolutely! When your dog does something correctly, you need to mark it immediately. This is why the clicker is so much better to use. If we use a vocal reward marker, it takes time to take a breath and speak the words necessary to let the dog know he's done something right. In just that short period of time, the dog could do a different behavior so would not get rewarded for doing what we wanted him to do. He might have blinked his eyes, turned his head to one side, moved a paw, etc. One good way to practice timing is to toss a ball into the air. The moment it hits the ground, click the clicker. Note that it's not all that easy to do in the beginning. Practice, practice, practice.
Timing is also important in order to mark the complete behavior. If you click too soon, you could be rewarding a partial behavior. For example, suppose you're clicking/treating your dog for a sit, but you click before she's got her butt on the floor. She will think you want her to do a partial sit.
If you click too late, you could be rewarding another behavior altogether. Suppose you want to mark the sit, but you hesitate. Your dog may have looked away or barked in that time you hesitated. So whatever behavior your dog was doing at the time you clicked is the behavior you actually marked.
Here's a common mistake we tend to make: suppose you're working on teaching your dog to come when called? You say to your dog, "come!", and the dog runs over to you. Then, you say, "sit!" and you c/t. You've just marked and rewarded the sit, not the "come."
DO I HAVE TO REWARD WITH FOOD EVERYTIME I CLICK?
Yes! That's the deal you've made with your dog and how you've conditioned the dog. Even if you mistakenly click for the wrong behavior you should still give the dog a treat. It's a very forgiving method of training. Just go back to c/ting for the correct behavior.
You can continue to praise your dog by saying "good boy" or "good girl" and continue patting the dog too. Just remember that the click is marking the behavior as soon as it happens.
WHAT IF MY DOG ISN'T FOOD-MOTIVATED?
If you have a dog that isn't food-motivated, you will have to find out exactly what does float his boat. Some Retrievers are crazy about tennis balls. Those dogs might consider catching a tennis ball in the air as their reward after hearing the click. Does your dog love to play tug? You can use that game as his reward after you click. It's best to make a list of reinforcers that your dog will work for. Sometimes it's a good idea to mix them up when you're working with behaviors that he's getting really good at doing. That way, your dog will never know exactly what reward he's going to get, and he'll work harder for you.
DO I USE VERBAL CUES WHEN CLICKER TRAINING?
If you're c/ting a behavior she already knows the cue for, go ahead and use that cue (sit!). However, if you're teaching a new behavior, avoid using any verbal cue until you've marked that behavior several times. Once she's doing the behavior easily, then you want to add the verbal cue as the dog is performing the behavior. So, let's just say you're teaching the dog to lie down. You've gotten the dog to down by luring her with a food treat until she's lying flat on the floor. Next step is to remove all food and just use that same motion with your hand to lure the dog into her down position. Right before the dog reaches this final position of being flat on the floor, say the word, "down!" Keep repeating the word just once each time she's just about to go flat on the floor. You want her to associate that cue of "down" with the final behavior. Then click/treat and say, "good down!"
SUPPOSE MY DOG OFFERS A NEW BEHAVIOR THAT I DIDN'T ASK FOR; SHOULD I CLICK/TREAT HER FOR IT?
Absolutely! Whenever you see your dog voluntarily doing something you like, c/t her and include praise too. However, don't be surprised if that interrupts the behavior she's just done. No worries because that just gives you another opportunity to "mark" the behavior again. In order to get a good habit going, your dog needs to be rewarded for it many times. The rules of positive reinforcement state that whenever a behavior is rewarded, that behavior will increase.
WILL THE CLICKER LOSE ITS MEANING IF I DON'T ALWAYS USE IT?
If the dog does something new that you really like a lot, and you don't have your clicker or treats with you, you should praise her to the skies, pat her and get all excited and happy. In other words, have a huge party for her right after she's done this marvelous performance. But... I would encourage you to keep your clicker and treats handy, especially in the early days and weeks of your training. The more clicking and treating you do, the more behaviors you will be able to mark and reward.
CAN I EVER WEAN HER OFF THE CLICKER AND TREATS?
Yes! The clicker is for teaching new behaviors. Once the dog has developed a solid habit, you can discontinue the clicker. As far as treats are concerned, you should then put the dog on a random reinforcement schedule rather than the continuous reinforcement schedule that you've been using. Here's a sample of a random reinforcement schedule; the numbers listed below are those times when treats are given. In between those numbers you should offer other forms of rewards (i.e., toss of a ball, a short game of tug, a pat on the back, praise, a game of chase, etc.):
You can create various random schedules of reinforcement, especially as you reduce the amount of treats you're offering. This will actually make your dog work harder to do the behavior because he's waiting for that big payoff... the treats! This is based on the "Slot Machine Principal." If you've ever stood in front of a slot machine, you know you're willing to put in lots of money because you become convinced that in any minute you're going to win that huge amount of money; sometimes you get paid and sometimes you don't.
By Renee Premaza, Dip., CB, CCBT