You may have heard of clicker training from a variety of sources, as it has become a popular technique in dog training over the past 10 years or more. The concepts and behavioral laws that support the effectiveness of clicker training have always governed the way animals interact with their environment but the widespread use of a handheld clicker as a tool to make training our dogs and cats more efficient and effective has just developed in the last decade or two.

The clicker is a small box containing a metal lip that makes a clicking sound when pressed. Some clickers today are sold with wristbands attached so that they are always handily available. Others have slightly modernized designs, but the key feature is simply that the device make a clear, distinct noise when pressed (some trainers even prefer to use a loud clicking pen or bottle cap to the same effect).

The sound means nothing to most dogs when they first hear it. In some cases, the sound actually may cause a startle response (in which case owners must desensitize their dog to the noise gradually – discuss this with your dog trainer or pet behavior professional if your dog startles when she first hears the clicker.) Our goal in clicker training is to teach the dog that the click sound predicts the availability of food or other rewards for a job well done. When we have a clear way to “mark” good behavior – that is, to tell our dog that we like the behavior he just performed and now he will earn a reward, or reinforcer, for it – we have opened up a line of communication that is highly effective in a variety of training situations.

To transform the click from a neutral, meaningless sound to a positive, communicative one, we begin by associating it with food. You should get a pocket- or bowl-full of treats handy. Use tiny but highly valued treats. Each treat need be no bigger than your pinkie fingernail (and even smaller for smaller dogs). If your dog is spending all of his time trying to nose into your pocket or bowl for free access to treats, you must first work to get rid of this behavior. Your dog trainer or pet behavior professional can guide you in how to do this. If you are able to stand or sit with treats handy and your dog is no longer busy nosing into your pile, begin clicker training as follows.

1) With clicker in your hand, and your hand by your side or in your lap, click the clicker and immediately (within 1 second) provide a treat from your other hand.
2) Wait between 10 and 30 seconds and repeat. Provide about 20 click-treat pairings in this way.
3) Get up and move to a new location, repeating steps 1 and 2 from a different room or chair of your home.
4) Over the next several days, provide several sessions a day like this, both inside your home in a variety of locations and outside your home in a fenced-in area or with your dog on leash (in minimally distracting environments for now).

Throughout this initial training (a process sometimes referred to as “charging” the clicker), you must remember to provide a treat EVERY TIME you click the clicker, and to always click BEFORE you treat. You also must provide the treat IMMEDIATELY after you click for maximum teaching effectiveness.

You will first notice that your dog has learned that the sound of the click predicts a food treat when you click the clicker without your dog expecting it, and he looks at you or comes running to you. Although this is a good way to “quiz” your dog on whether you have taught him the significance of the clicker, you should be careful not to use the clicker in this way more than a couple of times. Specifically, many owners get into the unfortunate habit of clicking the clicker as a way to get the dog running to them when he is otherwise ignoring them. Because the clicker becomes such a powerful tool, it often can work in this way (similar to the way many dogs come running when they hear the crinkling of their food bag or cats come running at the sound of the electric can opener). However, because the clicker also serves as a conditioned reinforcer (see below), it will reinforce (reward) whatever the dog is doing the moment he hears the clicker. Therefore, if your dog is ignoring you when you call him from the yard so you click the clicker to get him to come, you may indeed have your dog there by your side but you have also rewarded him for ignoring your initial call!

Some reinforcers are called primary reinforcers – these are those things that animals easily work for because they are biologically prepared to find those things appealing or satisfying. For example, food and water serve as reinforcers for all animals because these stimuli are necessary for survival. If animals were not motivated to figure out how to get food and water, they would not last very long and would not have survived to pass on these preferences for food and water to their offspring. This is how we can use food treats so easily in training dogs. Dogs are motivated by food – that is, they will work to obtain it – and we can teach them that one way to earn this valuable thing is to follow our cues and household rules.

Other reinforcers are learned within our lifetime. For example, money means nothing to a baby. Yet soon we all learn to work in exchange for money because we learn that money provides us access to other things, including primary reinforcers like food, water, and shelter. At that point, money has become what’s called a conditioned reinforcer. In the same way, we teach our dogs in clicker training that the click promises access to food, and thus the click becomes a reinforcer in itself. It will then serve to reinforce whichever behavior produced it, as well as to signal that other reinforcers (like food) are now available.

Praise can also work as a conditioned reinforcer with dogs. Yet praise can be less useful than a clicker in training for several reasons. First, we talk to our dogs all the time, both when we are happy with them and when we are angry or disappointed with them. We may talk to them before we provide positive things (like treats and belly rubs) but we also talk to them before providing negative things (like nail clipping or bringing them inside from a fun game of catch). In this way, our dogs have learned that our words can mean many different things, both good and bad. The clicker on the other hand, is used in only one way from its introduction through the end of its use – to predict the availability of food – and thus is much less ambiguous. Second, the clicker sound stands out more distinctly from ambient noise in the environment than does our voice. Because it is a short, crisp noise, it easily garners a dog’s attention against the din of other noises that may be present in any given training context. Its short and distinct quality also makes it ideal for marking responses that occur very quickly in time. Good timing is essential in all areas of dog training and behavior modification, and the clicker can mark a behavior more precisely than general praise or even a one-word human utterance such as “Good!” Third, the clicker sounds the same every single time – although some owners/trainers are very good at using a verbal praise word in the same way every time, for other owners this can be difficult to do consistently. The clicker is a highly consistent stimulus from one use to the next.

Often, a clicker can be used to initially shape a new response or to reinforce a response that only occurs occasionally. Over time, the behavior can be maintained by other reinforcers and the use of the clicker can be faded away. Your pet behavior professional can help you develop a plan for how to fade the use of the clicker in areas where it no longer seems necessary or where you would like to rely on other, more naturalistic reinforcers.

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