Clicker Training 101 (Video) - Simply For Dogs
Clicker Training

Clicker Training 101 (Video)

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Hey guys, Ash here. You all know by now that I’m a big proponent of clicker training. I can’t tell you how often I’ve recommended this type of training on the blog.(I’ve even talked about a major mistake that many beginners make when they use clicker training.) But as I was thinking back on articles from the past, I realized that I’ve never actually done an in-depth guide to clicker training. There’s a huge list of reasons why I really recommend clicker training, especially for owners who have never trained a dog before. But before we get into the hows and whys, let me tell you about my introduction to clicker training.

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When I got my first Boxer, Gloria, I was already pretty familiar with dogs. I had raised and trained many dogs, starting from childhood and working all the way up into adulthood. I considered myself confident and competent with dogs at the time; looking back, that confidence was likely my problem. Gloria was my first Boxer, and really my first introduction to stubborn dogs. She was smart and overall good, but she liked making the decisions. It took all of my knowledge and experience to even get her to follow commands half the time. About three months into having her, I called a friend of mine who trains dogs professionally and said “Ben, I just don’t think this is going to work!”

Ben, being the owner of a local puppy kindergarten program, told me to bring Gloria by to watch us work together. My training method back then was more in line with the idea of establishing myself as the alpha dog and expecting Gloria to “get it”. Ben stopped me after just a few minutes, shaking his head. “Ash,” he said, “You’re not even getting her attention.” With that revelation and just a half hour, my entire relationship with Gloria changed.

What is Clicker Training and Why Use It?

Clicker training is not, contrary to popular belief, a whole training regimen or philosophy. It’s simply a method of getting your dog’s attention, so that you can then implement a training plan. Think of the clicker as a type of of communication. It tells your dog “Hey – there’s something you need to do right now!”

 

The problem, as I was learning with Gloria, is that most training programs skip the most basic issue related with training – telling the dog that they need to translate a sound into an action. Imagine being a dog, and not understanding the sounds your owner is making. They start off by saying something like “Jkkdlsfj!” And you have no idea what that means, so you assume they are just making noises like they always do. If they then shout the same sound at you, and then get angry at you, do you have any idea why? Of course not! But if you hear that clicker, you immediately know that when your owner shouts the sound “Sit”, you’re supposed to translate that sound into putting your butt on the ground. And then viola! You get a snack!

Of course dogs can be trained to translate sound into action without a clicker. But the clicker has been repeatedly shown to work very well again and again, so why not use it? Scientifically, it has been proven to be the easiest way for a dog to understand that action is needed. Clicker training is even effective for cats, birds, and other pets.I’ve recommended this clicker many times on the blog, but I also have a few of these, and they’ve worked great as well.

How to Get Started with Clicker Training

So now that you know why I recommend clicker training, let’s get started with the “hows”. The basic technique of clicker training is to first teach your dog to associate the sound of the clicker with a treat; to click and treat during a desired behavior; and then to give your dog a sound cue for that behavior. There are three main methods for accomplishing this:

  • Capture your dog in the act and take advantage. For example, if your dog is spontaneously sitting to greet a new visitor rather than jumping, click and treat right away.
  • Shape your dog’s behavior by clicking and treating for attempts, and then gradually increasing your expectations. For example, click and treat if your dog moves towards you when commanded to come, and then gradually withhold the click and treat until they heel to your side right away upon command.
  • Lure your dog’s behavior by using the treat to entice them to move to a specific spot or position. A good example is when you hold a treat on the ground in your closed hand, waiting for your dog to lie down completely before you give it to them.

It is effective only when you can immediately use the clicker during the desired behavior. This sound is the reinforcement that gets the dog to associate the good behavior with pleasing you. These are some tips for when you first start using the clicker from square one:

  • Start by associating the sound of the clicker with a treat. Simply click the clicker and give a treat. You can use training treats if you prefer, or just a piece of kibble. You could also use a small piece of plain, cooked meat, a bit of peanut butter, or other dog-friendly human food.

 

  • Then move on to associating the sound of the click with desired behavior. When your dog sits, comes on command, or follows another easy command, click the clicker. It’s important that you click DURING the desired behavior, not after. Timing is crucial with this training tool.If you find that your dog isn’t improving in one area, you’re likely clicking too late.
  • Just click once, unless you really want to emphasize a certain behavior. Don’t overuse the multi-click excitement, though. Keep that reserved for something really, really important.
  • Keep your practice sessions very short. Maybe five minutes, two to three times a day, is better for a puppy or a dog that has never been trained, than hours at a time.
  • Keep the clicker on hand all the time and click when your dog is doing something good. Don’t punish bad behavior; instead, reward good behavior with a click and a treat. So if your dog goes to the bathroom outside, click and treat. If they stay on the ground instead of jumping on guests, click and treat. When you’re out and about with your dog, have the clicker and a few treats on hand all the time. You can use a dog treat pouch like this one by RokaPets or this one by Paw Lifestyles to carry all that plus a few toys and waste bags – very handy for going to the dog park.

 

  • Only click for times when the dog does the behavior, not for times when you have pulled or prodded them into it. For example, if you want your dog to come to you, and you tug on the leash, don’t click. Your dog is responding to the physical cue, not the command cue. The click is their cue to translate sound into action, remember. Only click when they follow a command without physical help from you.
  • Don’t wait for your dog to do the behavior perfectly. Go ahead and click (and treat!) for movements that indicate the dog is trying. The point is that you want them to translate the sound command into movement – you can work on getting the action perfect once they are following through with paying attention. A few steps in your direction for a “come” command is worth a click and treat as you are just starting out, for example.
  • As the dog shows you that he’s paying attention, you can start shaping their behavior by raising the bar a little at a time. When you get a consistently good response to the command, start asking for a bit more. For example, if your dog immediately sits on command, try waiting for a few beats, getting them to sit longer, before the reward and the click. Or work on getting them to follow commands faster, such as coming to you in a hurry rather than a loping walk.
  • At some point, your dog may start trying to get you to click and give them a treat by doing the action without waiting for a command. For example, your dog may randomly come up to you and sit, and then look at your hand (where you’d normally be holding the clicker and a treat). Don’t reward this behavior with a click and a treat. You want your dog to associate the action with the command, and only do it when told.
  • Don’t ever mix clicker training with punishments or angry behavior. Your dog will stop associating the clicker with positive rewards, and won’t respond to it anymore. That being said, there are some trainers that prefer to use a negative sound, such as a “Uh-uh” or a buzzing noise, when the dog is actively in a training session and does the wrong thing. Other proponents of clicker training point out that merely by withholding the treat during bad behavior, you are in fact using negative reinforcement. Following your own instincts with negative reinforcement is best for your dog.

Clicker Training in Other Forms

I wanted to really drive home the point that the clicker isn’t a training method in itself, but a tool for a positive training technique. So here’s one fact that can show you how this tool can be translated in other ways: “clicker training” can be used with deaf dogs as well.

How? Well, you can use the same techniques with another communication tool. For example, teach your dog to associate treats with a quick on-off flash from a flashlight. (A laser pointer is not recommended because it’s too small to be seen unless the dog is watching for it.) You’ll use the light the same way that a clicker is used. Another method is to use a “hand flash”, or a hand signal, that is quickly “turned on and off”. A good example is a thumbs up. You can quickly give a thumbs up and then drop it. Use this hand signal the same way you would a clicker.

Other trainers have used a vibrating collar that gives off a quick vibration. Once again, you’ll use this vibration the same way you would a clicker. Be sure you give the vibration, the flashlight flash, the hand signal, or other type of signal, at the moment of the good behavior, and then reward with a treat.

As you can see, the point is simply to get the dog’s attention. The clicker does that, but so do many of these other tools.

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The End Game

The goal of clicker training is not to have to carry it or treats around forever. Eventually, when your dog is fully trained, you won’t have to give them treats every time they follow a command – they’ll simply do it because their brain recognizes the behavior as a positive thing. So don’t worry that you’ll always have to be carrying these things around forever!

When it came to training Gloria, it took me a few months to get her on board with following commands all the time, without fail. But it would have been much longer had Ben not introduced me to this training communication tool. She needed something that let her know to pay attention, and I needed something that let me feel like I was in control. This tool accomplishes both things, and that’s why it’s so perfect in my opinion.

Since then, I’ve always used a clicker to train dogs, and I’ve always had great luck with getting my dogs to be very well behaved. This isn’t the only training method out there, but I do think it’s very well suited to both experienced trainers and new dog owners.

Sources:

https://clickertraining.com/15tips

http://www.deafdogs.org/training/clicker.php

About the Author Ash

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