What is clicker training?
Clicker training for dogs was popularized in the 1990s by dog trainer Karen Pryor, although it had existed as a form of animal training before being introduced to the dog world.
Clicker training is a form of operant conditioning, which itself is a type of learning process where behaviors are reinforced or discouraged through punishment or reinforcement. An example of operant conditioning would be a child touching a hot stove. The pain inflicted by the heat discourages them from performing the behavior again. Likewise, giving a child an allowance for doing chores encourages them to do their chores unasked next time.
Clicker training utilizes a tool to mark the exact action that was performed correctly. The idea is that you can click the clicker faster than you can say a verbal encouragement or dish out a treat. This makes training much faster as there is less confusion on the dog’s part for what exactly they’re being rewarded for.
For example, say you’re teaching your dog how to sit. As their butt hits the floor, you say, “Yes!” and then hand them a treat. But in the seconds it took you to react, the dog’s mind may have strayed. Maybe they shifted slightly in their sit. Or wagged their tail. In your mind, you are rewarding the dog for their sit, but in their mind, there have been quite a few other actions they have performed – so what are they being rewarded for? With a clicker, you can mark the exact second your dog’s butt hits the floor, thereby removing all confusion on what they’ve done correctly. This speeds up training significantly because you and your dog can communicate much quicker and more concisely.
Where do I start?
To get started with clicker training, you will need a clicker, obviously! This does not have to be a commercial clicker, although it is recommended. Anything that makes a sharp, loud clicking noise (such as a pen) can work. You will also need rewards! The clicker is simply the marker for what the dog has done correctly; you still need something to reward your dog for a job well done. While treats are the usual reward in dog training, some dogs are more enthusiastic about toys or affection than they are food. It’s up to you to experiment and see what your dog responds to best.
The most important part of clicker training is the timing! You do not want to click before the behavior or after the behavior. The click must come as the behavior is being correctly performed. However, the clicker removes any concern over timing of reward, so though you must provide the treat in the following seconds, you don’t have to rush to it like you would without the clicker. Some people will add a secondary marker to their clicker training. For example, you can say a “Yes!” at the exact moment you are clicking.
So, how do you get started clicker training? You first need to “charge” the clicker. To do so, simply click and then treat repeatedly. You want to do this until your dog shows enthusiasm for the click sound. This shows that your dog understands that the click precedes reward. Once the clicker is “charged,” you can begin actual training! You may want to start with something easy and simple until you’ve gotten the hang of your timing. For example, a basic “sit” command.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of clicker training, you can begin to get into more complicated tricks or behaviors, and even into shaping!