Clicker training is a powerful way to teach your dog new tricks and tasks, and can also be used to discourage unwanted behaviours by teaching your dog to do something appropriate instead.
When you use a clicker to mark a correct behaviour, you’re able to capture it at the very moment it occurs. The click is faster and more distinct than saying, “good dog!”
Clicker training allows you to break down complex tricks into smaller steps, like teaching your dog to put their toys away. It also helps your dog learn faster by clearly communicating precisely when they’re done right.
Loading The Clicker
First, you’ll need to teach your dog to love hearing that click.
The best reward for most dogs is a small treat like Serrano Liver Flavour Bites. This treat is a primary reinforcer. You don’t have to teach your dog to get excited about a treat.
You’ll “load the clicker” by clicking, then giving your dog a treat immediately afterwards. Do this ten times, and your dog will associate the sound of the click with the excitement of getting a reward. In no time, your dog instantly get excited to hear the click. This is when the click becomes a secondary, or conditioned reinforcer.
You’ll continue to give your dog a treat every time you click. This allows you to let your dog know when they’ve done something right without rushing to shove a treat into their mouth. The click means, “good job, a treat is coming!”
What To Teach First
After you’ve practiced the above exercise a few times, you can use the clicker to practice naturally occurring behaviours.
A great starting point is “watch me.” Your dog naturally makes eye contact with you throughout the day as they wait for food, instructions and to see what you’re about to do next. “Watch me” is the most valuable foundational behaviour to get on cue because it will allow you to get your dog’s attention anywhere, anytime – even at the park near a tree full of squirrels.
Start in a low distraction area (like your living room), say, “watch me,” just once, and simply wait for your dog to look at you. When they do, click and reward with a treat. At first, it can be helpful to bring the treat up to your eyes to guide your dog into looking directly at your face. You can phase this out by turning it into a hand signal.
Try this a couple of times indoors, then try it in a slightly more interesting area, such as your backyard. When your dog gets the hang of that, you can try it during walks around the block, at the park, and inside a pet store.
Also try gradually increased distances. It’ll be easy to get your dog to watch you when you’re right in front of them. Try it when you’re a few metres away, then across the room. When you’re making a task more challenging, only focus on one area: increase distance OR distractions, not both at once, so you can set your dog up for success.
By now, your dog will have a strong understanding of what the click means, so you can move on to more advanced tasks. There’s three primary ways of teaching your dog a new behaviour: luring, capturing and shaping.
Luring is the technique most commonly used by beginning dog trainers, and that’s only because it’s so effective. Many professional trainers using luring too, but they realize that you can become too dependant on it, so it should be phased out quickly.
An example of luring would be to put a treat in front of your dog’s nose, then slowly wave it around in a circle so that they’ll follow it, doing a spin in the process.
Capturing means to click and reward your dog when they perform a desired behaviour naturally without being prompted. For example, if you want your dog to yawn on cue, you can simply wait until they are tired. When they yawn, you’ll click and reward them. After you capture a few yawns with your clicker, you’ll start to say the cue, “sleepy,” when your dog is mid-yawn, just before you click and reward them.
This technique can take time because you’ll have to wait until your dog performs the behaviour on their own, but as your dog gets the hang of clicker training, they’ll catch on faster and faster. That’s why consistent training is so important. It strengthens the bond between you and your dog so you’re able to continually communicate more effectively with them.
Shaping is a more advanced technique, and it demands precision, which is why the clicker is so useful for it. As an example, let’s say you wanted to teach your dog to step up onto a chair. You would place the chair in front of the dog, and wait for them to approach it. You would click and reward the dog a few times just for going near it.
Of course, the dog will continue to approach the chair when they realize that going near it is highly rewarding. Then, you’ll up your criteria by waiting for the dog to actually touch it. Then, you’ll click and reward when your dog puts one paw on it, then two paws, and finally, when your dog steps up onto it.
Shaping can be difficult for both the dog and trainer at first. It requires very precise timing, and your dog may be at first confused. After you train a simple trick through shaping, though, your dog will start to realize that you will reward them when they make an effort. So, they’ll be motivated to use their problem-solving skills to figure out how to get closer to the desired behaviour.
Phasing Out The Clicker
You don’t need to have your clicker handy every time you want your dog to sit. The clicker is just for making it easier to teach new tricks. Once your dog learns to do a behaviour on cue, you don’t need to click before rewarding. It’s perfectly fine to use praise and verbal markers like “good!” at times.