“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” — Roger Caras

Clicker Training: How to Get the Best From Your Dog

How To Use A Clicker To Train A Dog?

Clicker training is a great, science-based approach to easily and effectively communicate with your pet. It’s a lot simpler to learn than regular command-based training and is accessible and understandable for any hearing animal – puppies enjoy it, and old dogs learn new tricks. You can clicker train cats, horses, birds, and even more exotic animals – many trainers use these same methods with llamas, dolphins, and elephants. 

Why does the clicker work so well?

A clicker is a small hand-held device that when a button is pressed, makes a clicking noise, and they are used for positive reinforcement training – a reward-based, highly effective training method.

The trick is to teach your dog to associate two fantastic things together – the sound of the click, and receiving a yummy treat! He needs to think that the moment he hears the click, he gets a reward. With consistent repetition, your dog begins to see the click as a reward in itself. One reason clicker training works so well is that the tone of the clicker is constant. It doesn’t change if it’s having a bad day or feels unwell as our voices can, and with consistency and repetition being key components in dog training, this is an important factor.  The other reason that clicker training is so effective is that the ‘click’ can reward the behavior you are asking for, instantly.

Training your dog using the clicker

Learning what the ‘click’ means

The first step is teaching your dog what a clicker is, and what it means – yummy rewards!

Pick somewhere quiet to start your dog’s clicker training, and have a pocket full of his favorite treats. With him close by, and a treat hidden in your hand, hold the clicker behind your back so as not to scare him, click and give him the treat. Both actions have to occur as simultaneously as possible so that he thinks of them as one action – click/treat. Over a period of a couple of minutes – learning new lessons can be tiring for a dog, repeat the click/treat. Try to make sure that your dog isn’t doing something you want to discourage when you click, as you want to always encourage good behavior.

A couple of times a day for the next few days, repeat the process – click/treat, click/treat. You’re aiming to have your dog look at you, expecting a treat the moment he hears the click.

Teaching the basics

Once your dog is looking to you for his reward every time he hears the click, and this is firmly established, you can step it up a gear.

Teaching your dog to sit is a really useful trick, and one with many practical uses, for example, being a malamute Thaiaga cannot be walked off-leash. However, in order that our shoulders survive walking nine-stone of over-enthusiastic malamute, he’s been clicker trained to sit every time he sees a rabbit. This means that we can approach him, shortening his extending lead, thus gaining more control.

Hold a treat above your dog’s head, slowly moving it over his head towards his tail. Following the treat with his eyes means the dog should sit back, automatically. The moment his bottom touches the ground – click/treat. This immediate response from you tells him that that is the behavior you want from him. Repeat this a few times, until your dog is sitting happily when he hears the click.

The next step is to add a command word. Now, as you move your treat-filled hand over his head, tell him to ‘sit’. Again, as soon as he sits – click/treat.  After trying this a few times, give it a go without the treat above his head, although do keep it in your hand ready to reward him. Use the command word, and see if he works it out. Be patient, and remember, the moment he does sit – click/treat.

Practice makes perfect

Keeping your training sessions between 10 and 15 minutes – shorter periods for puppies, keep practicing this routine a couple of times a day for the next few days – command, click/treat.

Once he’s sitting confidently every time, slowly start reducing the frequency that he gets a reward. Give the command word, and immediately he does what you’re asking click. By now the click will be firmly associated with receiving a treat and becomes the treat in itself. Start off by alternating the click/treat or no treat, and after a couple more sessions, reduce it to every third click, and so on. Eventually, you want to eliminate the treat much of the time, just giving him one every now and then.

Preparing to Clicker Train Your Dog - How To Use A Clicker To Train A Dog

Tips for clicker training

  • Always click/treat the behavior you want to encourage. For example, if you’re training your dog to sit, don’t click if he’s barking as he’ll associate the bark with the click/treat. The click/treat tells him you’re pleased with his behavior.
  • The better you can time the click/reward with the correct action, the quicker your dog will learn. Aim to click as he’s actually in the act
  • Remember timing is everything – the better you can time the click/reward with the correct action, the quicker your dog will learn. Aim to click as he’s actually in the act
  • Keep your training sessions short
  • Training should always be a happy experience; never force your dog to do what you want – you’re a team, so work together
  • If you’re having a bad day, or are feeling rushed and busy, leave the dog training until tomorrow – dogs pick up on our moods very easily

What next?

Clicker training can be used to teach your dog to do anything – from going into his crate, or ‘playing dead’ to fetching the newspaper.  Be quick to click/treat the action you want to encourage, even if it’s the smallest step.

Using the newspaper as an example, place the paper on the floor in front of your dog, and the moment he steps towards it to investigate, your click/treat tells him that he’s pleasing you, so he’ll want to do it again – dogs love to please us. Following the same process that you did with ‘sit’, gradually, as you practice, add in a command word – ‘paper’ and in no time at all, he’ll know that ‘paper’ means go to the newspaper.

In time, try it holding the paper in front of him, give the command, and when he touches the paper, click/treat. Be consistent, keeping training sessions short and fun. Over a period of several days, or more depending on your dog, encourage him to take the paper in his mouth. ‘Paper’ now means hold the newspaper between his jaws – watch out for him chewing it, though, you don’t want a soggy, half-eaten lump delivered into your lap! Remember, too, to click/treat as he allows you to take the paper from him – that way once he’s fetching it from the yard, he’ll bring it back to you, too.

Once he has the hang of this and is getting it right every single time, put the paper back on the floor, and, giving the command, wait patiently until he makes a move to pick up the paper in his mouth – click/treat. Even if he doesn’t actually pick it up at first, if he looks like he’s trying to – click/treat.

Once he’s happily picking it up from the floor, move it further away – only a few feet at first, but increase the distance over time, and soon you’ll have a dog who’s happy to pick up your paper from the front yard and bring it back to you – perfect!

This video shows perfectly the clicker training process from start to finish – just look at how much Ned is enjoying learning new things:

 

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