Learn to Teach your Dog with a Click // Clicker Training 101

Maybe you’ve seen it on the shelf at the pet shop, or seen the word mentioned in puppy training books. The clicker is a small plastic box that emits a loud popping sound when pressed. It is a simple but powerful communication tool and a positive way to condition your dog to new behaviors or tasks. Sound crazy? Let me explain.

The Psychology Behind the Clicker 

The concept of the clicker is based on the psychological phenomenon known as “conditioning”, as discovered by Pavlov in his famous experiments with dogs during the early 20th century. He found that when he consistently paired food with the sound of a metronome, the dogs began to salivate, I.E. expect food at hearing the metronome alone. Clicker training makes use of this concept by teaching the dog to associate the sound of the clicker with a treat. This is your first step in introducing the training tool to your dog. 

What Kind of Food Rewards Should I Use?

Because clicker training is fast moving and based on repeated rewards for desired behaviors, you want something small, low calorie, and easy to gobble down in a second. You may choose to use pieces of your dog’s normal kibble, a brand of commercial training treats, or small bits of plain chicken. Whatever you choose, make sure to think about how much they will be taking in during each session and calculate that into their meals for the day to avoid weight gain.

Teaching Your Dog to Love the Clicker 

Be aware that some dogs may have sensitivity to the loud noise of the clicker at first. If you suspect this may be an issue for your pup, start off by simply taking out the clicker and feeding them when they see it. Once they seem excited when it comes out, progress to feeding them at the exact moment you press the clicker. The timing is very important here. Your dog needs to know that this sound always means a treat.

Connecting the Clicker with Desired Behaviors 

Once your dog understands that the clicker means something tasty, you can begin to use it as a marker for desired behaviors. The moment your dog hears the clicker, he will assume that whatever he is doing will result in an immediate reward. For example, if you would like to teach your dog to sit, the minute you observe your dog exhibiting this behavior, speak your chosen command, click and immediately feed. He will quickly learn that sitting in response to your cue is an exciting and beneficial thing to do.

*A word of warning though. It is very easy to accidentally reenforce negative behaviors if your clicker game is a little off. If you are slow on clicking when your dog sits, and instead click a few moments later when he has decided to jump up on you instead, he will learn that jumping is the thing that will get him a click and a treat. During training sessions, you must keep the clicker and food reward ready so that you can mark desired behaviors the instant they happen, not too early, and not too late. That said, if you are a few moments late in clicking and your dog is still doing the thing you would like him to do, that is perfectly fine. In fact, delayed clicking may even come in handy as a technique to teach sustained tasks, such as a down stay.

Short Sessions and Small Steps 

Training sessions can be demanding for both you and your dog. Try to keep them short (10 to 15 minutes) and consistent (once or a few times a day). Particularly when teaching more complex tasks, make use of a technique called “shaping” by rewarding small progressions toward whatever final behavior you are looking for. For instance, if you are working on the “stay” command, you might start by clicking and treating after a shorter period, and progress gradually to longer and longer spans of time. Or, if you are working on teaching your dog to pick items up off the floor, you might start by clicking and treating when they merely look at or sniff the object you want them to eventually retrieve.

Teaching the “Touch” Command with the Clicker 

So, you’ve got the basic theory down. Let’s put it into practice by teaching your dog a useful little command called “touch”. When you ask your dog to “touch”, he should eventually bop your closed fist or palm, depending on your preference, with his nose. This command is simple, but has three great uses.

1. Focus. If your dog is distracted by something and behaving poorly, you can use “touch” to get his attention quickly back on you.

2. Movement. It can be an incredibly easy and effective way to maneuver your dog without pulling the leash. Just put your hand where you want your dog, tell him touch, and he will be there in a flash if he knows there’s a click and treat coming. 

3. A fun game. Your dog might need to get some energy out on a rainy day. You can use the touch command for a fun challenge for your dog. Put your fist all sorts of different places for him to find and bop. Here you can start asking him for a few touches in a row and reward only after several successes.

Here are the steps 

1. Start your session in a low distraction environment with your clicker and treat pouch ready and available.

2. Put your touching hand (I use the right as I usually have my dog’s leash in my left hand) somewhere your dog can reach it. Wait until he investigates your hand by sniffing it. If he doesn’t do this right away, you can shape the behavior by first rewarding him when he looks at your hand, or put a treat in your hand to give him an incentive to come close and sniff. Don’t give the treat to him until you have marked the behavior with the clicker. Click and treat as soon as he makes contact with your hand.

3. Once he is consistently making any sort of contact with your hand using his nose, pair the behavior with the word “touch”. Click and treat when he responds appropriately.

4. Start to click and treat only for his more insistent contact. Ignore any less than passable “bops”, and wait to reward his best ones. Make sure that he is bringing his nose to your hand, and not the other way around.

5. Repeat this process until he is giving you the exact sort of bop you want… pretty enthusiastic, firm, but still with his nose, not teeth.

6. Practice refining this command by moving your hand to different locations on your body or around the room, and then progressing to higher distraction environments. Remember always to keep your dog on a lead or in an enclosed area outdoors unless you are certain that his recall is rock solid even with distractions present.

Et Voila!

You have learned to train your dog with a click. For more posts on dogs, look for the “related posts” header on this page, or click here.

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