Introduction: Clicker Training for Dogs (or Any Animal!)

What is clicker training?

A click is a sound used to mark an event. It’s like saying “Good” only it is more audibly discrete and consistent, making it easily recognizable to your dog. When you have a clicker in hand, you are more mindful of the precise behavior you’re looking for. When only your voice is used, it can be difficult to get in the habit of saying “Good”. A clicker also helps you to be more patient and less frustrated because it changes the way you think about dogs. By providing alternative, more desirable behaviors and rewarding, you learn to ignore the bad and reward the good. In this unit, I’ll tell you everything you need to know clicker training to get started.

What’s involved?

Putting a behavior on cue is easy and can be achieved in as little one to three sessions of no more than five minutes in length over the course of a few days. Maintaining cues for behaviors can be achieved through praise and life rewards.

Will it work for my dog?

Yes, absolutely! In some way, shape or form, there is a practical application of clicker training that you and your dog can benefit from. Have you ever wondered how stunt dogs perform those amazing tricks? Or how animals perform in Hollywood movies? How about service dog tasks or detecting cancer? Clicker training can be used for training cats, horses, rabbits, birds, farm animals, marine wildlife, rodents, zoo animals and a variety of other creatures.

What are the benefits?

The purpose of clicker training is really to get you doing more with your dog and thinking differently about your daily interactions. You will gain a variety of tools that enable you to analyze your dog’s behavior, modify existing routines and implement new policies or procedures. Clicker training is a skill and developing it will open your mind to a new realm of possibility and understanding, not only with your dog but also with human behavior. There are potentially limitless benefits, as you will discover the more that you become familiar with how dogs think, learn and communicate.

How effective is clicker training?

Clicker training is the most effective, fast, fun and humane animal training method. But, like anything in life, you get out of it what you put into it. It’s definitely more fun and safe than using punishment, both for you and your dog.

Why should I start or switch to clicker training?

Why shouldn’t you?! It will life easier for both you and your dog so that you can actually enjoy your bonding together and spend less time stressing out over the small stuff.

What if my dog doesn’t respond?

Create a learning environment that is quiet and free of distractions. Make sure your dog is hungry and your treats are motivating. Exercise your dog prior to training if necessary. Do what works for you. If you follow the steps outlined in this unit, it can work. If it doesn’t, either you don’t understand it well enough yet or there’s something wrong with your dog’s biochemistry (in which case you should have your dog examined by a veterinarian to rule out any possible medical conditions).

Do clicker trainers use punishment?

Yes, but not the kind you’re probably thinking. There are actually two types. Positive punishment (P+) is the addition of a stimulus in order to decrease the frequency of a behavior. Negative punishment (P-) is the removal of a stimulus in order to decrease the frequency of a behavior. Research has shown that using positive punishment results in side effects, usually more unwanted behavior such as fear, avoidance and aggressive reactions. Clicker trainers don’t use this type of punishment because of this. Instead, clicker trainers use negative punishment. This typically involves taking something away the dog enjoys, such as your attention for jumping or time outs for mounting at the dog park, in order to decrease the frequency of the behavior. If you would like to understand more about the science behind how animals and humans learn, I highly encourage you to do some research on the following terms related to learning theory, as well as view the addition resources in the free extras area.

  • Classical Conditioning
  • Operant Conditioning
  • Premack Principle
  • Desensitization versus Flooding
  • ‘Little Albert’ Experiment

Are treats and clickers used forever?

No. Once a dog knows a behavior reliably and can demonstrate it on cue, there’s no need to continue using a clicker for that particular behavior. A clicker makes teaching behaviors much, much faster than using our voice alone.

Where did clicker training come from?

It was first mainly used by dolphin trainers that needed a way to teach behaviors without the use of physical force. Hopefully now you know some things about clicker training that you can share with other dog parents when the opportunity presents itself.

What You Will Need

A hungry, motivated dog

A clicker

A container for treats (pouch or bowl)

10-50 treats (pea-sized and tasty)

Congratulations on taking the first step!

A little work now will pay huge dividends throughout your dog’s life.

3 Ways Clickers Are Used

Capturing

Capturing is clicking once for a behavior the moment as it naturally occurs. Think of it like taking a picture. You say cheese, everyone smiles, and then you click to take a photo (one that stays in your dog’s mind to mark a memorable occasion). This is the most common way of using a clicker.

Shaping

Have you ever wanted to teach a fun trick like bow, rollover or spin that doesn’t always occur naturally or frequently? Shaping is clicking for successive approximations of a target behavior. It’s like playing the hot/cold game with your dog, gradually guiding them to the behavior you want. Shaping is a powerful tool in training behaviors that we can’t quickly and effectively teach with just our voice alone.

Targeting

Ever wonder how animals are trained for movies or certain service dog tasks? By training a dog to touch an object, such as a targeting stick, you can get them to freely follow it and lead the dog anywhere you want them to go, instead of having to pull, push, lift or coax. You can target the dog into the car, onto a grooming table or over jumps. Hand targeting can also be used to socialize shy and mouthy dogs with strangers’ in a safe way.

Practicing Without Your Dog

Before you begin, you may want to practice using the clicker without your dog present. Do not practice with your dog present until you are ready for the next section. How comfortable does the clicker feel in your hand? When you switch hands? Where are your treats? How fast can you deliver them to your dog or bowl from your treat pouch or container?

Hint: No more than 3-5 seconds is my recommendation for beginners. Otherwise the dog may lose interest and not associate the reward with the preceding click.

Timing Exercise

The exercise below will help you to be mindful of three things:

1. What specific behavior you are looking for.

2. How to wait patiently and observe your dog for the behavior you want to mark.

3. Developing the timing of your click by choosing when you want to mark the behavior.

This can be done several ways, when your dog is not present. The basic idea to developing timing is that you or a helper tosses a ball, toy or other light object into the air and then you attempt to click it exactly as it reaches its highest point (OR the moment it hits the ground).

Delivery Exercise

You can also practice clicking then tossing treats into your dog’s bowl or a cup when they are not around. This will help you become comfortable developing mechanics that immediately follow your click.

Videos to Get Started

Step 1: Motivation and Rewards

The smaller the treat, the more repetitions you can get out of a session before your dog gets full.

When first starting out, you should use a portion of your dog’s daily meals for training, if possible. If your dog is currently free feeding, put them on a schedule (twice per day for adult dogs; three to five times per day for puppies). This will make it much easier to foster motivation for food, particularly with small dogs that don’t eat much as it is.

You’ll want to save the highest value of treats for the most distracting of situations. The ones your dog goes bonkers for. Your dog decides the value of an item (not you). Experiment with different commercial treats (I recommend freeze dried beef liver, Happy Howie rolls or Charlie Bears from Trader Joe’s) and human food, too, like cheese, fruits and vegetables.

If you have a small dog, or a dog that isn’t very food motivated, you can portion their normal food out ahead of time and use it for enrichment throughout the day. To spare you of repetitive motion injuries from bending over for a small dog, try using a wooden spoon coated in peanut butter for licks that has been chilled in the freezer to harden.

Toys can also be used as a reward during training, and in some cases we can provide access to other things dogs enjoy, known as functional rewards.

Praise should always be used as a reward, too.

Step 2: Building Motivation

What is it?

Motivation is what makes your dog tick. It’s what drives him to do things, like respond to your cues and find doing so worthwhile—especially the second and third times you ask. Motivation answers the question, “What’s in it for the dog?” Common canine motivators: Going for car rides, getting a ball tossed, going on walks, getting a leash clipped on or off, playing tug, access to other dogs, access to smells, and—the biggie—food.

How to use it.

If you control what motivates your dog, you give him good reason to pay attention to you, i.e. to want to do what you want him to do. It’s the equivalent of saying to your dog, “I’ll tell you what: If you sit, I’ll throw your ball” or “If you stop pulling on leash, I’ll let you go smell that fire hydrant.”

You use what naturally motivates your dog to get the behaviors you want most.

Ways to increase motivation.

First, limit your dog’s access to the things he finds most motivating. Have a ball-crazy dog? Instead of leaving balls around the house at all times, carry them with you so you can whip one out as a way to reward your dog when he is getting something right. Second, you can make an item more exciting by bringing it to life for your dog.

Simply handing a dog a toy isn’t nearly as fun for either of you as shaking it about, playing peek-a-boo with it and then, at the height of excitement, asking for a behavior and rewarding it with a toss of the toy. And food sitting around in a bowl can’t equal the fun of kibble dished out during a fun training session.

Troubleshooting

Having trouble getting your dog’s attention? Be sure you are using the right motivators for the challenge. Kibble can’t compete with a treed squirrel. Always have an ultimate trump card—something your dog just can’t resist.

Troubleshooting

What if your dog isn’t food motivated? Well, he has to be—or he wouldn’t be alive. But if he blows off your treats, do these things:

1. Significantly increase the value of the treats you offer. Don’t try dry foods, especially in high distraction outdoor settings. Work to find a food (usually something meaty and greasy) that makes your dog go cross-eyed with glee.

2. Limit your dog’s access to his food. If your dog is constantly full, he will be less interested in what you have to offer. Avoid free feeding, and schedule feeding times for after training sessions and walks, instead of before.

3. Try something else altogether. For example, if you have a ball-obsessed dog, you may have an easier time getting his attention with his favorite ball than with the leftover chicken from last night’s dinner.

Step 3: 'Charging' the Clicker

Before we can use a clicker, we have to create the association that the clicker sound means a reward is coming.

To do this, click and then immediately treat your dog approximately twenty times consecutively. You can do this for 2-3 sessions over a day.

Once you’ve completed this step, you’re now ready to begin training and need not repeat this step again.

Step 4: Behavior Fluency

It is important to get a dog repeating a behavior frequently and accurately before adding a verbal cue. It’s best to work on only one cue at a time during your training sessions so that you avoid confusing your dog.

Step 5: Adding a Verbal Cue

Once your dog is repeating a behavior frequently, prompt them with the word you’d like them to respond to.

Wait five seconds, maybe longer the first time.

Condition yourself not to repeat yourself. When we repeat ourselves, for example “Sit sit sit”, we’re actually training our dog not to respond until the third time we’ve said sit.

If your dog isn’t performing the behavior, you may need to practice more.

If your dog performs the behavior, use a ‘jackpot’ reward. Toss a few treats instead of just one. This will increase the likelihood that the behavior is associated with the verbal cue.

From this point on, continue rewarding with treats 100% of the time to strengthen the behavior. Practice in different rooms around your home.

Once your dog is responding 9 out of 10 times, you’re ready to increase the duration, distance or level of distraction.

Step 6: Practice Makes Improvement

Your dog should be responding to your cue at least 9 out of 10 times before increasing the level of distraction (low to medium and medium to high).

See the section titled The 3 D's: Duration, Distance, Distraction for more info.

Step 7: Weaning Off Food

Why fade the food?

Because no one wants to carry around food all the time, and we want dogs to respond regardless of whether food is present. The truth is that dogs want what’s in it for them. Cutting off food reinforcement permanently because we think a dog has learned something is a bad idea. We want the behavior to persist even in the absence of food, so we’ll have to wean them off food gradually with intermittent reinforcement (there are other types of schedules that can be used, which we’ll explore in greater detail later as this Instructables is improved).

In my opinion, your dog should be performing a behavior 9 times out of 10 in the highest levels of distraction before you even consider weaning them off food. Reward with food every other performance, substituting praise instead. As time goes on, reward every third or fourth performance until eventually no food is required.

You should still occasionally reward behaviors though. A behavior that isn’t rewarded will become extinguished because the dog no longer has any incentive to perform it.

How to do it.

Step 1

Use life rewards early on when you train a new behavior. As soon as you are getting a reliable response to a new cue—a solid four out of every five trials—start interspersing non-food rewards with food rewards. For example, throw a ball or bring out a favorite squeaky toy to reward your dog occasionally, while continuing to use food rewards for the rest of your dog’s responses.

Step 2

Begin asking for more tricks per treat. In the beginning when your dog is learning something new, you should reward each right response. But once he has the hang of it, start asking him to do several cues in a row before he gets a treat, so you start establishing the idea that he doesn’t get something every time.

Step 3

Vary how often you reinforce, and what you use to reinforce with. You might give a treat for a single response, then a treat after three responses, then a ball toss after two responses, and so on. Eventually use more and more life rewards and fewer treats. Keep it varied to keep your dog guessing—it’s exciting not to know when the next reward will come and what it will be.

Troubleshooting

If your dog’s behavior starts to break down and become less reliable, that’s a clear sign you are getting too stingy. Be sure to reinforce more often and with better rewards. Check that the rewards you use are actually interesting to your dog. It’s not reinforcement if the rewards used aren’t reinforcing.

Training Tip

Be random. Avoid reward patterns such as ball toss, ball toss, treat. Also avoid reinforcement patterns such as giving a reward for every fifth response. Dogs quickly pick up on such patterns, and the training suffers accordingly.

Step 8: The 3 D's: Duration, Distance, Distraction

There is a reason that dogs do not always respond to us in certain situations. Dogs are poor at generalizing, meaning they’re very people-specific and situation-specific learners. What they do best with one specific person or place, they might not do as well with, or at, another.

You will have to work up your dog’s reliability in new places in order to produce the level of compliance you’re expecting. Use the following three rules as a guideline:

1. Always start with lower distractions and work up to higher distraction levels.

2. Always increase duration before adding distance or distraction.

3. Always increase distance before increasing distraction.

Quite simply, always train in this order: Duration, Distance and then Distraction. Doing so will save you a lot of headache while training, allowing you to train more efficiently and reliably while progressing through training in a more timely manner.

If you hit a snag, all you have to do is go back to where your dog was performing a behavior correct with more accuracy and practice more often until you’re ready to proceed again.

Duration

For the purpose of this Instructables, Duration will mainly refer to the length of time in which a dog sustains the Stay behavior (which is discussed in that section).

Although, for example, once your dog is reliably performing a behavior such as eye contact, you can increase the duration for which the behavior is sustained (hold eye contact longer).

Distance

For the purpose of this Instructables, Distance will mainly refer to the length of space between you and your dog during the Stay and Recall behaviors (which is discussed in those sections).

The general guideline here to be mindful of is: The further your dog is away from you, the less likely they are to respond. Therefore we need to start close to our dogs and gradually increase distance reliably before expecting the same level of performance in high distracting environments.

Distraction

One of the reasons I prefer in-home private training is because that is where dogs learn best! There is least possible distraction, unlike group classes held in a facility or park.

Just because you’ve taken a basic obedience class does not mean that your dog is familiar with enough with basic cues to be ready for the outside world. You need to actually take your practice sessions to the places, or with the people, where you require your dog to respond. Note these distraction levels are used as a guide or framework. The actual situations for your dog may vary and are specific to your dog due to a variety of factors, such as age, breed and prior training experience.

Low-level places

House, garage, backyard or other quiet situations. These are the places you should first introduce new behaviors and put them on cue reliably. Once your dog is responding to a cue at least 9 out of 10 times, you’re ready to take your training to a medium distraction level.

Medium-level places

The front yard, light vehicle traffic, walks and light people traffic. Once responding at least 9 out of 10 times with medium distraction, you’re then ready to take your training to the most distracting of places!

High-level places

A busy park, crowded streets, trails, the dog park, and places with lots of squirrels, birds or other noises. These are situations where it is difficult, if not seemingly impossible, to get your dog to listen to you.

Save the yummiest of treats for this level of distraction.

Step 9: Ready to Learn More?

If you'd like to learn more about Clicker Training, or take this Instructables in a free course format, checkout this link: http://www.clickerplus.com/learn-how-clicker-training-works/. You can also pre-order the new Clicker Ring that I'm developing (to prevent dropping, fumbling and leash interference; unlike traditional clickers).

If you're ready to have a better relationship with your dog, but can't afford a professional trainer, you can hookup to my dog brain at K9Kourse.com for $99 with checkout code DOGLOVER: http://www.k9kourse.com/

If you'd like to know more about me, you can read my bio here: http://www.dogguyjosh.com/about/

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Comments

author
Emma Stewart (author)2015-12-10

For treats I use a flavoured small dog food like Kibbles and Bits. Its cheap already in bite size pieces and nutritional! Buy a small bag and when you run out buy a different flavour and brand to keep it interesting! My dog loves it! its like giving a kid a carrot stick as a reward! they never know!

author
DogGuyJosh (author)Emma Stewart2015-12-10

Thank you for sharing, Emma!

author
jakezimprich (author)2015-12-09

Excelent & very detailed write up!
Also beautiful Weimaraner!

author
DogGuyJosh (author)jakezimprich2015-12-09

Thank you!

author
seamster (author)2015-12-08

Excellent write up, and loads of good info. Thank you for sharing!

author
DogGuyJosh (author)seamster2015-12-08

Thank you! I hope you find it helpful!

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Bio: Certified dog trainer. Passionate about creating innovation & social change in the pet industry. Proud to have served my country.
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