The How and Why of Clicker Training

One tool that has come in handy for training all of my pets is a clicker. (Yes, all of my pets- you can clicker train animals of all species!) I’m sure you’ve seen, or even used, a clicker before, but there is a lot of confusion surrounding them. I’m here to lay down the basic foundation for you.

When training an animal, a clicker is used as a secondary reinforcer: basically, something that you condition to have positive meaning for your dog. Praise also falls under this category.  Compare this to primary reinforcers, which need no conditioning and are biological. For instance, when you tell your dog to sit, they might get a treat for doing so, which is the primary reinforcer. On the other hand, clickers, or praise, are secondary reinforcers, and you need to teach your dog what they mean because on their own they are not inherently rewarding. Once your dog knows what hearing the click means, you can use it to mark desired behaviors. They will then have the same response to the click that they would to a treat.

So, Why Clicker Train?

Clicker training has many benefits, which people worldwide have reaped with all species from dogs and cats to rabbits and goats. However, for simplicity’s sake I will use dogs as an example when explaining. The main advantages of clicker training are:

  • A novel sound: The click from a clicker is very distinctive and easy to recognize. This is advantageous because often when using praise as a secondary reinforcer, we inadvertently talk too much, and our dogs begin to tune us out. The click is an entirely new sound that a dog likely hasn’t heard before, and therefore will not confuse with anything else.
  • It’s exact. When training, we use the clicker to mark the exact behavior that we want to see. Since the click is so quick and precise, we can click the exact moment that our dog does what we want them to. In this way, dogs will learn more quickly exactly what we are asking them to do.
  • There’s no fumbling for treats. Although clicker training does still require treats, the click marks the behavior instead of the treat. Once your dog hears the click they know they have done something right, and that gives you the time you need to retrieve a treat rather than needing to fumble frantically.
  • It can help to create a more fulfilling relationship between you and your dog. Within species it is too easy to send mixed messages, and unfortunately this happens a lot between dogs and people; typically, it is due to inconsistent cues, or inadvertent cues sent because of our body language. Unfortunately when this happens, dogs stop listening to their handler simply because they are confused. Using a clicker can clear up a lot of this miscommunication and can therefore help to nurture the relationship between dog and handler.

Okay, You’ve Convinced Me. So How Do I Start?

To begin clicker training, you need to teach your dog what hearing the click means. (Essentially, click = that was right! Now I get food!). To start, you need to “charge” the clicker. To do this, all you need to do is click the clicker, wait one second, and then give your dog a treat. The key to this is repetition: you’ll want to do this many times in a row so that your dog learns. It is hard to quantify how many times it will take, but you will be able to tell: when your dog is looking away from you, try clicking. If they whip their head around to look at you, they obviously have paired the sound of the click with food!

Now that you know your dog understands click = food, you can start to integrate the clicker into your training, and use it to mark correct behaviors. The trick is to click at the exact moment that your dog does what you asked him or her to do. (If you asked your dog to sit, click at the moment their rump hits the ground.) Then, you can follow it up with a treat.

You will probably find that you are the one that needs the most training! This is completely normal: the timing is the hardest part, and it’s difficult at first to click at the right time. But you will also find that the more you keep at it, the easier it will get! I hope that clicker training helps you and your pets as much as it did me and mine.

I personally use the Clik-R™ because there is band to keep it on your finger, but there are many different clickers out there depending on your preferences for style and tone of the click. 

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Do you know how I taught Sasha this adorable trick? You guessed it! Clicker training.

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