Clicker Training for Dogs

AKC GoodDog! Helpline trainer Breanne Long explains the secrets to clicker training and how it can make a positive impact in your dog’s training program. 

What is clicker training?

You may have heard about clicker training, a method of positive reinforcement training. But what does it mean? How is it different from just rewarding your dog for making good choices?

Firstly, clicker training is rooted in science. Behavioral science tells us that behaviors that are rewarded will continue. Clicker training was developed by marine mammal trainers; however, they use whistles because they can be heard underwater. Marine mammal trainers had to use some sort of positive reinforcement method to train the animals with which they worked. Not surprisingly, negative reinforcement or aversive training doesn't work with an animal that can simply swim away if he is in pain or uncomfortable! The clicker, or whistle in this case, is a bridge. It tells the animal that whatever he is doing at the time he hears the click or whistle is correct and will earn a reward. 

Why is this better than just rewarding an animal after it completes the desired action? For example, perhaps a trainer wants to train a dolphin to create a bigger splash when jumping. Without marking the exact action that the dolphin creates a splash, the dolphin doesn't know if he is being rewarded for jumping high, jumping fast, returning quickly to the trainer after jumping, etc. 

There are many variables that can be interpreted or misinterpreted when, in actuality, all the trainer cares about is the splash. With a clicker (or whistle) the trainer can "mark" the exact moment a big splash is created. Now the dolphin knows exactly what action should be repeated in the future to earn more rewards. In short, clicker training is very efficient!

Clicker

How does this relate to your dog?

Using clicker, or marker, training, you can communicate to your dog exactly what he is doing that will earn him a reward. 
A clicker is a mechanical noise maker, however, you can also use a verbal marker word. Many trainers use "yes" or "good." It's important that this verbal marker not be confused with verbal praise, and that it is always used in the same tone of voice. 
So how would you use marker training with your dog? 
Here's an example...you are teaching your dog to lie down on cue, however, your dog tends to immediately pop back up into a stand the moment his elbows hit the floor. 
You can't possibly deliver a reward fast enough for him to connect the reward with the lying down action. Bring in the clicker! You can click, or mark, the moment his elbows hit the floor so that even if he does stand back up, you can still reward him and he still knows what he is being rewarded for. As your dog learns, you can delay your click, or mark, so your dog learns that remaining in a down position is what earns his reward!

Ready to start clicker training? 

Not so fast... First you need to charge your clicker! Right now, a click or marker word doesn't mean anything to your dog. Before you can start using it in training, you have to give the sound value. This step is very simple. Count out 10 small treats. Click and feed treat, click and feed treat, click and feed treat, and continue until you have used all 10 treats. Now when you click or use your marker word, your dog will be expecting a treat! 

Try it out.

Start with something simple that your dog already knows: Sit, for example. Ask your dog to sit, click/mark as your dog’s rump touches the floor, and then deliver your reward. 
Some other behaviors where using a clicker can be handy? 

Jumping - You can click for four paws on the floor much easier – and faster-  than you can deliver a treat when all four paws are on the floor. 
Stay - Click any time your dog is staying still. 
Go to place - You no longer have to be next to your dog, or follow him to his bed, to reward him for going to his bed when asked.

Don't forget! Follow up every click with a reward! This could be food, a toy, praise/petting, or anything else your dog enjoys.

Important Tips for Successful Clicker Training 

• Pay up!
• Practice timing!
• 1 click = 1 reward
• Delivery reward within 3 seconds
• Click for action; reward for position

Subscribe to the AKC GoodDog! Helpline and talk to our experienced trainers about your dog’s training needs. Trainers are available seven days a week to assist clients with all their questions: www.akcgooddoghelpline.org 

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