When you get a new puppy or are looking to train an older dog you need a method that is consistent and effective. Dog clicker training is a tried and tested technique that can be used by experienced dog handlers or novice owners with little or no dog training experience.
In this article we will look at what dog clicker training is, how to get started and some tips on where to start your dog training journey.
What is Clicker Training and how do you use it to train a dog?
Clicker Training for dogs is where a small device, called a clicker, is used during training to mark the point (by producing a click) where your dog displays a movement or action that you are teaching.
The click would be followed by the presentation of a reward, typically food or access to a toy. Dog Clicker training is a form of positive reinforcement.
What is Positive Reinforcement Training?
Simply put, positive reinforcement training is where desirable behaviors are rewarded and others are ignored. Clicker training highlights the desirable actions by reinforcing them through the delivery of an award or stimulus.
Positive reinforcement training is thought to be one of the progressive or humane training methods as opposed to punishing your dog for doing things you don’t want it to.
The theory is that the positive associations the dog feels by being rewarded for behaving in a way the owner wants encourages a self-perpetuating desire to please. We all know that the vast majority of dogs love their owners good or bad but the relationship from both sides is strengthened by the collaborative nature of this method.
Positive Reinforcement vs Discipline Training
The contrary form of training would be discipline training where the dog is ‘disciplined’ if it does not do what it should do. This may include equipment such as shock collars where a ‘pain’ is associated with not doing what is asked for.
I am not a trained dog behaviorist but I believe the positive enforcement route fosters a relationship of common understanding and trust where discipline training can introduce fear into the relationship.
As you would expect this is a very emotive topic with strong advocates on either side of the fence and although strongly in the positive enforcement camp there may be extreme cases where a dog’s behavior risks it being euthanized or it poses a risk to the public and other methods have been exhausted discipline training may be a last resort.
The argument put forward by opponents to positive reinforcement training is that dogs will only perform tasks for a reward and when this ‘stimulus’ is removed it falls down. I don’t believe that is the case. I think rewards can be phased out but there is no harm, and it can be advantageous, to revisit reward giving periodically during normal daily activities or training
What age should you start clicker training?
As soon as possible! That may be a simplistic answer but if you have just picked up your new puppy at the age of around 8-9 weeks you are in the ‘golden’ zone of learning. Your puppy’s brain will be a sponge and you don’t want to waste a second before you start training. Employ effective training alongside a well thought out puppy set up and your pup will be into your families routine in good time.
Another advantage of training a young puppy is that you have ready made reward by using their daily allocation of feed. A young puppy is likely to be much more accepting of normal kibble as a training reward than an older dog who may have already decided what constitutes a treat for him or her.
Can you Clicker train an older dog?
Yes, absolutely. You won’t be catching the dog in their ‘exploratory’ puppy stage and depending on their background may have some underlying issues or entrenched behaviors to tackle BUT there is a good chance you do know what gets your dog excited.
This may be a certain food such as chicken or sausages or may be a favorite toy. Armed with this knowledge you can get down to training.
How to get started with Dog Clicker training?
You may be wondering how to introduce your dog to clicker training. When you first start clicker training you need to ‘charge’ it. Don’t worry they are not electronic, charging the clicker means associating the act of giving a treat with the noise produced when the clicker is ‘clicked’.
This can be achieved by clicking – giving a treat and repeating relatively quickly over a number of treats.
You should use small treats with your puppy, their kibble being ideal for initial training. Whilst charging the clicker it is best to just feed the treats to your puppy preceded by the click of your clicker.
You can move them around, just be careful not to click and reward any behavior you don’t want to see such as jumping or clawing. Don’t worry if you drop your treat on the floor just click before your dog laps it up.
The puppy will soon associate the clicking noise with the production of a treat. They won’t realize, understandably, at this point that clicks will only be sounded when they do something you want them to.
What is a good first dog clicker exercise to get started with?
The first exercise I would suggest for anyone starting to train a puppy is one where you make your new dog realise they are not getting anything if they chew, gnaw, scratch or do anything to try and get the treats in your hand.
This can be achieved quickly by putting some kibble in your non-clicker hand and holding it out fist closed. The puppy will naturally come and investigate and try and get the treats.
The moment it moves its head away click and reward. After a few attempts the puppy is likely to sit there waiting for the click and reward as they know trying to get it out of your hand is futile.
This sets you up well for conducting a lot of the close distance initial training such as sit, stand, down etc.
What can I train with the clicker?
Any commands (sit, stand, stay), tricks (turning, playing dead, rolling over) and behavior (potty training, calm when left alone) can be shaped with the use of clicker training. You should bear in mind the following points for maximum effectiveness:
- Don’t click too close or loudly initially with your puppy (some clickers have different level settings).
- Mark the exact time your puppy is doing what you want. It is important that you click at the right time so the dog knows what you are pleased about – don’t distress if you have a few errant clicks, you will have the majority in the right places.
- Work in increments – Don’t always go for the ‘final product’. Break actions down into small pieces. For example if training recall initially reward your puppy for just turning to look at you when you call. This can then be developed step by step until you only reward when they come right to you.
- Work on the three pillars of training – time, duration and distraction. Varying these during training will embed behaviors.
- Practical tip – get a couple of clickers, they are like pens you put them down and then forget where it was so having a couple means you are always ready to go.
Which Dog Clicker is best?
Dog clickers come in a wide array of shapes, colors, some with buttons, some with different click noise levels. The best one for you will be one that you are comfortable holding whilst training allowing you to deliver treats effectively with your other hand.
Luckily most clickers are relatively inexpensive and as discussed earlier it is always a good idea to have a couple lying around.
Personally I like the simple metal foil type where you just press on the one end of the inner section to produce a click. You can always place a piece of blue tack on it to muffle the click if too loud. I just find these sit well in my hand and I didn’t get on so well with one with a button but you will find one that suits you.
Do you have to use a clicker for positive reinforcement training?
The simple answer is no. You will however need a clear, repeatable marker if using another method. This could be as simple as saying ‘yes’ every time your puppy does what you want of them.
As with the clicker example you would initially ‘charge’ the command as you would with the clicker but instead of clicking and producing a treat you would say ‘yes’ and produce a treat.
Do you have to use a clicker forever?
You may be asking yourself, do I have to use a dog clicker forever? No you won’t, you will have a pretty good idea when a certain command is fully understood by your puppy – that’s not to say they will always do it.
Training at this point won’t necessarily require the use of the clicker. You can praise your dog in a number of ways for doing what you want such as simply saying good boy or girl or petting them on the successful completion of a command.
The environment you are now ‘working in’ will also have a bearing, for example working on recall in the woods your puppy might not hear the clicker from a distance during recall.
There is no harm in going back to using the clicker if you felt that is required. The standard training progression is to increase the difficulty in steps and if you are struggling go back a step, master and go again so clicker training is no different.
When should I stop using rewards?
As your dog understands what you want and has been taught effectively you won’t have to use treats or rewards all the time.
They still have their place though and I would randomly reward from time to time to remind your dog you appreciate their good behavior.
Time to get going!
It’s time to start training. Hopefully the introduction to dog clicker training here has set you up for success.
Jump in, don’t worry about the odd misplaced click. Spending time with your dog, stretching their mental capabilities will help you form a strong bond, keep your dog stimulated and start to produce a well rounded companion.