Clicker training dogs is a highly-effective and dog trainer-approved positive reinforcement dog training technique. But don’t be intimidated. Just because clicker training dogs is well respected doesn’t mean it’s difficult to implement with your four-legged friends.
But before we dig into clicker training dogs, let’s cover a few basics about dog training.
Dog training really falls into two categories: classical conditioning and operant conditioning.
Classical conditioning is best represented by Pavlov and his drooling dogs. Dogs learn to associate external stimuli with certain outcomes. In Pavlov’s case, the dogs heard a bell and drooled in anticipation of dinner. In your case, your dog might hear the jingle of the leash and know they’re going for a walk. Classical conditioning is an automatic response that your dog has no control over.
On the other paw, you have operant conditioning. This is active training where your dog learns to bridge the gap between behaviors and consequences. Again, it’s trial and error. Your dog experiments and learns what behaviors earn a positive consequence, like a treat, and what earns a negative consequence, like losing your attention in the moment.
For example, if your dog sits in front of you and you give him a treat, he will begin to associate sitting with getting something tasty and are likely to repeat this behavior. Likewise, if you give your dog a treat when he jumps up on you, he is likely to repeat that behavior!
This trial-and-error piece makes operant conditioning the foundation of clicker training dogs.
The clicker helps you immediately acknowledge and reinforce desired or good behaviors.
But you’re probably wondering how exactly it works.
What is the Clicker in Clicker Training Dogs?
A clicker is a small device you can hold in your hand that makes a “click” sound when activated. Clickers take the place of a marker word, or verbal cue, in positive reinforcement dog training. The clicker alone has no inherent meaning for a dog. You actually teach the dog to love the clicker by constantly pairing the sound with a treat (more on that later). Once the dog learns that the click is always followed by a food reward, you can use the clicker to mark good behaviors.
It acknowledges the desired behavior immediately before your dog can get distracted or forget what they just did to earn a treat.
You can find dog clickers online or at any pet supply store. They are relatively inexpensive but not exactly interchangeable. The “click” noise needs to be consistent to eliminate any confusion for your dog. And, the click always needs to be followed by a treat in order for the dog to learn the association.
If you like to keep doggy bags and food treats in multiple places in your house, it may be a good idea to purchase several of the same clickers at once and stash them with treats for consistency.
Training Your Dog with a Clicker
You can clicker train dogs of any age…from very young puppies to seniors.
Before modifying behaviors, you must teach your dog what the clicker represents. Grab your dog’s favorite food treat (something better than kibble!). Then click the clicker and give your dog the treat immediately.
Do this 10 to 15 times in a row. Click then treat. Click then treat.
Your dog will begin to associate the sound of the clicker with the drool-worthy reward of their favorite snack.
Once your dog understands that the clicker means they get a reward, begin using the clicker in dog training exercises.
First, decide what one desired behavior you want to positively reinforce with your dog. For this example, let’s say you want to teach your dog to sit based on a verbal cue.
With the clicker in one hand and a treat in the other, hold the treat just above the dog’s nose so he has to lift his head to see it. If he tries to jump, move the treat away and start over. Your dog will begin to lift his head and his rear will go down. Gently push your dog’s butt towards the ground. As soon as they sit, click the clicker and give a treat.
Practice this motion and slowly introduce the speaking cue, “Sit!” before you lure your dog into a sit. Continue clicking and treating as he or she sits down.
Eventually, you won’t have to lure your dog’s action because he or she will learn the desired behavior is what happens when he hears the click and will begin to offer that behavior more quickly.
Once your dog understands “Sit!”, phase the clicker out. Use the clicker and food rewards only when you give the verbal cue, not when he or she sits automatically.
Don’t forget to give your dog encouragement and praise when he or she listens well without the clicker. This also reinforces the good behavior and reminds them that sitting equals a pleasant outcome.
Is Clicker Training Good for Dogs?
Clicker training dogs can offer many rewards for both the pet and his or her owner. When you train your dog with a clicker, you build a stronger bond with them because they connect your praise, attention, and affection with good behaviors.
You also reduce confusion caused by varying inflections in your voice and in the voices of other members of your dog’s household.
As with any dog training method, it requires work and dedication. But the end result of a happier and more confident dog makes it worth the effort. If you need help with clicker training dogs or staying consistent in any positive reinforcement exercise, consider joining Ruffly Speaking, a community for pet parents.
Founded by world-renowned The Dog Gurus, Ruffly Speaking is a membership community that offers real-time training exercises, insider information on the latest dog products and food, and access to some of the most experienced dog trainers and pet professionals around.