You’ve probably heard of this thing called clicker training for dogs, but what’s it all about? How do you get started training your dog with a clicker? And… does it really work?
Read on for the background and basics of clicker training, and the best book to introduce you and your dog to this highly effective way of teaching obedience, tricks, dog sports, and more.
What is Clicker Training?
Clicker training is a highly effective, science-based method for teaching dogs and puppies to mind their manners, as well as to perform tricks and obedience behaviors. Anything your dog is physically and mentally able to do, you can teach your dog by clicker training.
A Bit of History on the Science of Clicker Training
Clicker training is the popular name for a combination of “classical conditioning” and “operant conditioning,” which you may recall from Psychology 101 lessons on the work of B.F. Skinner, his student Marian Bailey, Bob Bailey, and others. These fundamental principles of learning apply to every living thing – including humans. In fact, the human applications of classical and operant conditioning are covered in most teacher-training programs around the world.
Operant conditioning – the main foundation of clicker training used now with our pets – has been used for years to train large or dangerous animals at many zoo parks or wildlife refuges, as well as killer whales, dolphins, etc. In recent years, thanks to the former marine mammal trainer Karen Pryor, “founder” of modern clicker training, the concept of clicker training has been extended to domestic animals. It’s used to train dogs, cats, horses and all sorts of other animals — even goldfish have been clicker-trained to perform simple tricks!
If it works so well with teaching a goldfish, just imagine what clicker training can do for your smart puppy!
Positive Dog Training by Positive Reinforcement
Clicker training is based on the principle that behavior that’s rewarded is likely to be repeated, while behavior that is not rewarded is less likely to be repeated. “Dogs do what works,” as we like to say!
For example: If walking nicely at your side earns your dog a click-and-treat reward, time after time, he soon catches on that walking on a loose leash is a much better thing to do instead of pulling you down the sidewalk. Even better, the polite-walking behavior itself eventually becomes so rewarding to the dog – so much fun for him, like playing a game with you – that the clicker and treats are no longer needed.
We use the clicker to teach a dog something new or for a quick refresher on a skill he hasn’t practiced in a while – so don’t worry, you won’t carry a clicker forever!
When you are clicker-training a new behavior to a dog, the process has two main parts: (1) Click – mark the exact moment of the good behavior with a sound – then (2) Treat – follow with a reward. This is called “Positive Reinforcement” in the lingo of operant conditioning.
A clicker is a small plastic device that makes a clicking sound. The sound of the clicker “marks” the exact, precise moment when your dog does something you like.
Note, the clicker is not used to call your dog or give a command. It simply tells the dog that he did something right. After all, a puppy is not born knowing what we want from him or what all these human noises (words) are supposed to mean.
So the click noise is a way for us to tell the dog, “That’s good — you just earned a reward!”
You can find different kinds of clickers at most pet stores and pet supplies outlets, both locally and online. My favourite is the i-Click by Karen Pryor. It’s curved to fit the palm of your hand and the raised button is easy to click without fumbling around. It is also a bit quieter than the old box-style clickers – less startling to people who may be around when we’re training in public.
Another one I like is the StarMark clicker, which also has a push button and is even a bit more quiet, a good choice for shy dogs who startle easily at unfamiliar sounds. If you lack strength in your fingers, your hands are small, or you have a touch of athritis, you’ll find either of these two designs of clicker are easy to use.
Science has shown that the mechanical clicker is far more effective than the human voice, as it is quick and precise and it sounds exactly the same every time, without the emotion that our voices carry.
But if you can’t or don’t want to use a clicker, that’s okay – there is nothing “magical” about the piece of plastic and metal, and you can still train by use of operant conditioning. You can also use a word like “Yes!” or a sharp vocal sound like “Yip!” instead, or click the top of a retractable ballpoint pen as your marker signal; whatever works for you, the principle is the same.
The click is followed by a treat or some other reward that your dog really likes.
The treat is your dog’s “pay check” for doing a good job – it’s not a bribe to get him to do something, or a lure to lead him by the nose. Food is the most effective training reward for most dogs, but in some cases you can also treat with a “life reward” such as going outdoors, getting a belly rub, chasing a ball, or playing with a favorite toy.
The dog will quickly learn that the sound of the clicker means that a reward is coming, and he will soon make a great game out of trying to figure out what behavior will make the click-and-treat happen!
Karen Pryor’s own ClickerTraining.com website has a lot of good books and articles about clicker training, of course, but some are quite advanced and intended for the more experienced dog trainer. I know it can be hard to make a choice, and frustrating if you choose a book that’s one step further along the training path than you are right now.
For the complete beginner or novice, either totally new to clicker training (or perhaps this is even your first dog?), I feel that the very best book to start with is one by Peggy Tillman called Clicking With Your Dog: Step-By-Step in Pictures, from Karen Pryor Books.
As the title says, this book gives you step-by-step illustrated instructions to walk you through training your dog by the clicker method, beginning with the very basic obedience and house training (yes, you can use clicker training to teach your pup to go potty in the right place!) right up to fun tricks, about 100 behaviors in all. That should keep you busy for a while!
How old should your puppy be to start clicker training?
You can start clicker training as soon as you bring your puppy home from the breeder or shelter. It will surprise you how quickly even an 8- or 10-week-old puppy can learn, for example, to go lay down on his bed when you need him out from underfoot.
Clicker training is a positive way to build your dog’s confidence as you teach him good manners, create a strong and lasting bond between you and your dog, and prevent the kind of behavior problems that can lead to stress in the family home. Best yet, training together is the quickest route to a true dog-owner bond of love and trust that we’ve ever found.
And, yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks!
Older dogs are never too old to learn by way of clicker training. They may not learn as quickly as a new puppy, because they are used to waiting to be told what to do or being lured (bribed) with food to get them to do something, but don’t worry — even a senior dog can be trained by the clicker method.
Clicker training is generally fun for both dogs and dog owners, and you can make a great deal of progress in a very short time, once you get the technique down. Best yet, through a program of clicker training, you and your dog develop a system of communication, your dog learns to pay attention to you and try to think through what it is you want from him, rather than you having to push or command him to do things. This type of positive training helps to build a strong bond between the two of you, the kind of strong loyal and loving relationship we all want to enjoy with our pets.