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The Truth and Lies about Clicker Training

A yellow box clicker with a wrist tether attached.
A standard box clicker

A clicker is possibly the most misunderstood training tool in the dog world. Things I often hear from clients;

“I clicked and my dog didn’t do anything so we stopped using it.”

“I don’t want to always have a clicker on me.”

“We bought a clicker for the puppy class and never used it after that.”

So, what is a clicker? A clicker is a tool used to communicate with your dogs. A click means two things to your dog if trained properly.

  1. They are doing the right thing the moment you click.

  2. They are going to get rewarded with a treat after they hear the click.

This is where a lot of people get confused. Dogs do not innately know what a clicker means. The noise has no meaning at all to them at first - except maybe a curiosity or even something startling.

The first thing you need to do is called load the clicker. Which means you need to pair the sound of the click with something good. Remember good old Pavlov from Psychology 101? He rang a bell before he fed the dogs in his experiment and eventually the dogs started to drool when he rang the bell even if food wasn’t presented.

We begin clicker training with no expectation of behavior with the dogs. Just click then bring a treat to the dog. By doing this, we are pairing the click with the expectation of a treat coming. It is important that the treat happens within about 3 seconds of the click. If the time between the click and the food is too long, the dog will miss the association.

The dog should start to anticipate the treat. If you do this with a clicker in one hand and a treat in the other, then the dog should soon go straight to the treat hand after the click. This is a good test to make sure the dog is understanding the relationship between the click and the treat.

Once the dog believes that click means treat, then we can really start to train with the clicker.

This is the point when a lot of people get confused. Why not just give the treat? Well, remember what I said about that 3 seconds? Dogs tend to either not make the connection or take much longer to make a connection if the time between action and reward is longer than that. The clicker allows us to mark the exact time the dog is doing the right thing and extend our time to reward. For more complex behaviors or shaping behaviors this is absolutely essential.

Let me be clear that there is nothing magical about the clicker itself. The magic is in marking the exact behavior you want. A clicker falls into a wide range of training tools called markers. In fact, you can use a word, a noise or even a cluck/click with your mouth.

Words tend to be less precise and consistent because they sound different depending on who says them and how they are said. Clicks are consistent regardless of your mood, or who is using the clicker. Some trainers choose to use a click they make with their mouths so they don’t have to worry about carrying a clicker around. This is totally fine! The key is consistency. A click/sound/word should always mean the same thing -in this case, that a reward is coming quickly.

So, this is how I respond to the statements I hear from clients:

"I clicked and my dog didn’t do anything so we stopped using it."

The click doesn’t mean the dog should do anything; it only marks the dog doing the correct thing. So, in this case the owner was likely not instructed on how to properly use a clicker. They got frustrated because it wasn't "working" and gave up on it.

"I don’t want to always have a clicker on me.”

I love clickers for training but do I carry them with me all the time? Absolutely not. In fact, I mostly use them to train new behaviors, especially behaviors that I am shaping. I also use a verbal “yes” marker word that means the same thing as a click to my dog. But when I am at home, I tend to use the clicker because it is much more precise than my marker word “yes” tends to be. The clicker also has a really positive reinforcement history so just bringing it out sends a positive signal to my dog that we are going to train, and we are likely working on a new or fairly new behavior. To my dogs, this signals there will be lots of reinforcement and it is going to be fun!

"We bought a clicker for the puppy class and never used it after."

This is honestly a common one and I really think it boils down to a failure to communicate a clicker’s purpose and perhaps an overly ambitious trainer. The fact is most pet dogs can learn the basics just fine without a clicker and that is perfectly okay. To me the most important thing is having a happy and well-behaved dog. Can a clicker help you get there? Yes, it can. Is it necessary to get there? No, it isn’t. But I do believe you will get there faster if you have clear communication with either a clicker or a marker word.

Here is a video demonstrating how I can use the clicker to capture the natural behavior of looking at me or focusing on my face. I simply wait for Freya to offer eye contact and mark the behavior I want with the click.

You can see I am not using a food lure to get her attention to my face. In fact, I have food in my hands. I don't make any noises to get her attention. I just wait and click when she looks at me and then I reward with the treat. Once she is reliably offering eye contact in this situation, I start to add in a cue word like "focus" or "eyes" before she offers the eye contact. Then, you have a behavior on cue without having to worry about fading a food lure or hand signal.

Using a clicker is a great tool if you want to communicate with your dog more clearly. They tend to learn new behaviors faster and with less errors making it less stressful on the dog and handler.

Do you want a lesson on how to train your dog with a clicker? Do you want your dog to pick up new behaviors more quickly? Do you want to learn how to shape a behavior like a dog putting its toys away? If yes, click the link below to set up a private virtual lesson!

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