In the last few years, clicker training has become a household name in the positive dog training community. It has become synonymous with overly-complaisant dog training by unfortunately misinformed dog trainers.
So, is clicker training all in the clicker, or is it a whole different method unto itself?The answer, surprisingly, is that you can use clicker training to train a dog with any method, from all-positive to completely compulsion-based. The clicker itself is just an audible signal that communicates to the animal that a reward may be following. To the astute reader, this will sound very familiar to… verbal reinforcement! That’s right, all the clicker does is make a noise to tell your dog (or dolphin, which is the animal it was initially used with!) that he may be getting a treat. The purpose (porpoise…) of the clicker is to replace a verbal reinforcement, such as “good boy” or “yes”.
There is not a reputable trainer under the sun that can deny the efficacy of positive reinforcement in training. Whether training should be 100% positive or not is up for debate, but not the importance of rewards in training, whatever the type. If you’ve ever praised your dog, you’ve used a reward marker. And a clicker is simply a reward marker.
Since the clicker just replaces sounds that come out of your mouth, why clicker train your dog?
The main reason clicker training is so successful is that the “click” always sounds the same, no matter who uses it or how they are feeling. Your tone of voice is very important when training your pet, and the clicker allows you to communicate clearly with your dog, a feat that may reveal itself to be quite difficult if you’re getting tired, frustrated or overly excited. The ease of getting your dog to understand the meaning of the clicker is also appealing. It takes a total of maybe half an hour, oftentimes less, over the span of a couple of days to teach the dog what this sound means for him.
The obvious drawback is that the clicker can be accidentally forgotten at home, whereas I have yet to hear of someone forgetting their mouth at home. This is made up for by the accuracy that the clicker can afford you. For most handlers, their biggest fault, whether they know it or not, is inaccurate timing. A half-second delay in rewarding or punishing, and you may be communicating a completely different message than the one intended. You can click quite a bit faster than you can verbally mark a behaviour, and it won’t get confused among all the other sounds you make with your mouth (also known as… speaking!)
To teach your dog the meaning of the “click”:
1. Arm yourself with a clicker, some treats (keep ’em tiny!) and take your dog to a quiet, well-known place, such as your living room.
2. Put your treat hand behind your back and have the clicker just casually in view in your other hand. Click and give your dog a treat. Do not throw or drop it, just pop it directly in Fido’s mouth. Avoid speaking to him, we aren’t teaching him a command! You don’t have to reward anything, so verbal praise is redundant. Do this about 10-15 times, at two or three second intervals. Repeat three to five times per day.
3. Start to notice if he reacts to the clicker before you give the treat. If he so much as furrows his brow or darts a glance at where your treat hand disappears behind your back, he’s getting it!
4. When you start to notice that he may be starting to make the connection, free him from this exercise, and when he isn’t focused on you, but is within earshot, click and see if he reacts. Whatever he does, give him a treat. If he starts to react, great, he’s catching on! Otherwise, just continue the sessions, some dogs take longer than others.
5. During your regular training sessions, use the clicker instead of your voice. Whether consciously or not, this is exactly how you taught your dog the significance of verbal praise!
Some people just find it easier to teach the meaning of the click ‘on the fly’, ie. just by replacing verbal praise with clicking. While this will likely take longer, it is a perfectly viable training option.
Important note: the clicker is not used to get your dog’s attention. We will use it a couple of times in this manner just to test if the dog has understood that click = food, but once Fido is “clicker-wise” we will no longer try to get his attention by clicking. Remember: the clicker is used as a reward marker, not a command.
That’s clicker training in a nutshell!
Good luck, and happy training!