Clicker Training Your Dog

If you know anything about dogs (and I really hope that you do because we make such amazing furr-ever friends), you probably know that there are a few things in life that pretty much always grab our attention. One of our all-time favorites include treats (oh yes, oh yes, oh YES!) and – while not always a favorite, but one that’s guaranteed to make our ears perk up and our head tilt sideways – unusual sounds. Put those two things together and you actually have the basis for what you human beings like to refer to as clicker training.

How to “Click” While Communicating With Your Canine Companion

Just What Is Clicker Training?

Developed more than 50 years ago, clicker training was actually first widely used as a way to train dolphins and other marine mammals. Although it relied on whistles to get the attention of such wet and wonderful animals (albeit it, ones that aren’t as intelligent as the canine kingdom), the underlying principles of the process are still the same today, although it wasn’t until the mid-1990’s that clicker training took off in popularity.

In today’s fancy “trainer terms,” clicker training is a form of “operant conditioning” – that also involves “classical conditioning” in the beginning stages – and that relies on positive reinforcement with rewards. What’s that, you say?!? Here’s how dogs would explain it…

  1. A human starts this odd playing session (which are always kept “short and sweet”) by making a funny “metallic snap” noise with a little gadget in their hand. Immediately after that, we dogs get a treat for what seems like no reason at all. Humans call this “loading the clicker.” Dogs simply call it “the best game ever” and wonder why their humans didn’t think to play this game sooner with them!
  2. The human then begins to only make the clicking noise when we do something specific, like sit down. That’s OK with us though, as we continue to always get a small treat right after we hear that unusual sound. Humans call this “marking the behavior.” We dogs are still more than willing to keep playing!
  3. The human then starts “introducing a cue” which means we hear a certain command or see a specific gesture or object that signals us to then (and only then) perform the desired action. If we “jump the click” and do it BEFORE we hear/see the cue, then we don’t hear the click or get a treat. Dogs – being as smart as we are – quickly catch on to the new rules of the game and we wait until we hear/see the cue before we do what is asked. A click followed with a treat once again tells us “job well done” and we happily keep performing!
  4. Eventually, the human stops using the clicker altogether as we continue to simply follow the verbal or visual cue. Because we’re still “rewarded,” we barely even notice that the snapping noise is no longer part of the game.

What Equipment Is Needed For Clicker Training?

Talk about keeping it simple! All you really need is a clicker device and some kind of treat. And let me take a minute to clear up one major concern that’s often associated with clicker training – when we say “treat,” it does NOT always mean a piece of food. Sure, it can be a tiny piece of our daily kibble “ration” or a super-special soft snack that we only get during such training sessions, but it can also be a favorite toy, a pet on the head, or a short play session involving chasing you, fetching a ball, etc. Just make it something positive that we’ll enjoy and you can be certain we’ll consider that as much a treat as a piece of steak! One other piece of advice though when it comes to treats – if you do decide to use food items as our reward, it’s nice to have a “pouch” – perhaps one that clips to/around your waistline – to keep them handy during our training sessions, as well as out of our actual sight.

As for clickers, there are actually quite a few to choose from. There’s the traditional little plastic box with an “exposed” metal clicker, ones with a “push button” that clip around your wrist to “stay put,” ones with “multi-tones” to teach different behaviors and/or different dogs, ones with volume controls, one that are “built into” the handle of a leash, combination clicker/whistles, and the list goes on.

There are also clicker “targeting” sticks that look like “presentation pointers” and that can be used to teach us to touch it and to then follow it. Why would you want to do that though? It’s just one more way of training us to do such things as hopping into the car to go to the vet’s office (instead of having to wrestle us into submission!) or to perform such neat (and potentially helpful) tricks as turning a light switch on and off.

What Can Dogs Be Trained To Do With Clicker Training?

Clicker training isn’t limited to teaching basic manners like “sit,” “stay,” and “down” to your average “couch potato” or “high strung” house dog. It’s also a wonderful – and widely used – way to train retrievers, show dogs, and agility dogs. You can use it to teach your dog to stop pulling on a leash and/or to stop “unnecessary” barking, as well as to help calm your aggressive dog and/or to potty train your new puppy. Animal shelter personnel and volunteers are also learning to use clicker training as a quick, safe, and reliable way to help shelter dogs during their “stay” and to potentially make them more adoptable. Even deaf dogs can be trained with the use of a “light flash” or hand signal in place of the “clicker noise” stimulus. The uses for clicker training really are only limited by human imagination. Be creative and we’ll be happy to follow your lead.

Where Can I Learn More About Clicker Training?

It’s almost overwhelming how many clicker training books and videos exist. Many of them are actually online resources and can be viewed and/or downloaded for free. I think you’ll even be surprised to find free step-by-step lessons – in both print and video format – that can be viewed online. You can also purchase a wide variety of “starter kits” that often contain a book, DVD, clicker, and sample bag of treats. Simply run a Google search and you can start picking and choosing what works best for you and your dog’s needs.

If you’d rather have a professional trainer teach your dog “clicker skills,” you can also search online for one. Look for local recommendations and/or check trainer references by contacting veterinarians, groomers, kennel owners, breeders, pet store owners/employees, animal shelters, rescue groups, etc. in your area.

I personally love clicker training! My humans used it with me and I can honestly say that we’ve never been more “in tune” with one another than when we started using clicker training as a way to communicate. No pun intended, but things just finally “clicked” between us and we’re now on the same page when it comes to behaving certain ways in certain situations. Plus – I can now happily entertain company by showing them how I open and close the refrigerator door while retrieving them a soda. I have never had so much praise and attention heaped on me! All of that simply because of a little bit of training that leads to huge positive rewards. What more can a pooch and his/her person ask for?

About Nanook

Nanook is our resident Siberian Husky, who lives for adventures in the great outdoors. Although just past puppy-hood, Nanook refuses to admit he has to grow up. He has agreed however, to provide us with some insights as to what dogs really like and how to make them tail-wagging happy.