Written by 6:13 am Behavior & Training

Clicker Training: What It Is, Why You Should or Shouldn’t Do It, and Alternatives

When you’re interested in clicker training your dog it can be difficult to get a clear unders…

What Is Clicker Training?

Clicker training uses a distinct sound, like a click from a pen or the snap of fingers, followed by a treat to communicate with your pet. The method is so named because when done correctly, it makes the same sound as when opening a metal lid off a jar of peanut butter.

The goal is to get an action to be repeated in future interactions. For example, if you have taught your dog to sit on command and receive praise and/or food for it, you can later use the clicker (without giving him any other signal) right before feeding him dinner to remind him that he will earn his meal if he sits at your feet while you prepare his bowl. This greatly increases the likelihood that he will comply without fail, and reinforce your good relationship.

As you may have noticed, clicker training is most often used with dogs. However, it can be equally effective on other pets as well. Cats can learn a similar behaviour by using a different sound — for example, shortening the same sound into an “eh!” As long as the cat responds to food-based reinforcements as any other pet would, he will quickly catch on that earning that meal depends on whatever behaviour you want to be repeated.

Ping! Isn’t Clicker Training Just Another Fad?

No. The original idea for this type of training was based on studies from psychology (and not animal training) done at Hull University in 1949 by psychologist BF Skinner. His experiments showed how a process of association between a positive stimulus and an action can teach animals how to behave. He referred to the clicker-like sound as a “bridging stimulus” because it bridges the time gap between the behaviour and its reward, and therefore makes learning more efficient.

A half-century later, Karen Pryor (a marine biologist who has been working with animals since childhood) attended some seminars by animal trainers during which many used this same method, but without mentioning Skinner or his techniques in their talks. Pryor found it interesting that most of these current practitioners had no knowledge about Skinner’s work, so she created a field guide for others to learn from each other’s successes and failures. She called her book “Don’t Shoot the Dog,” named after one of Skinner’s books, “Beyond Freedom and Dignity.”

The name clicker training was chosen because of the story Pryor tells in her book about a trainer she knew who used a small wooden box with a metal lid as his bridge stimulus. He would simply flip the lid open, which made a distinct noise, to let the dog know it had performed correctly and would receive food or praise after five seconds.

No matter what you call it — marker training, operant conditioning, biofeedback or positive reinforcement — your pet will be glad you are using these principles to help him learn.

Clicker training has seen great success since its inception over 50 years ago, but many people continue to question its effectiveness. Some critics claim that dogs (and other pets) will not respond to this type of training as well as they would to more traditional, proven methods. However, it is important to remember that clicker training does not replace normal training – in fact, it enhances the process by making your pet more aware of what will be expected of him each time he hears the signal.

What Is the Meaning of the Click?

For the animal, the clicker is an audio bridge between a specific behaviour and a reward. After you have taught your pet to respond to this sound — for example, by giving him food when he hears it— just remember to use the clicker whenever your pet does something that deserves praise or a yummy treat.

In other words, the clicker is used as a marker, to identify when the pet has performed what you want him to do. He will quickly learn that he will only receive his reward if he performs the desired behaviour after you have activated your marker.

It’s important to keep in mind that this sound represents an event that signifies “good things happen” for your pet, and should never be used with unpleasant actions (with one exception: see below). If you use it too often during bad events — such as nail trimming or bathing — your pet may begin to associate the clicker with something negative.

But don’t worry— this doesn’t mean that all hope is lost! Once your dog learns how much fun it is to earn those treats by doing the right thing — and that he will only get them when he hears the clicker—he will start coming to you with his favourite tricks even before you have time to reach for the clicker!

Here are a few examples of how people have used Clicker Training:

● To teach their pets to look both ways before crossing streets;

● To house-train their puppies by using it as a bridge after the puppy eliminates in the proper place;

● To help shy dogs overcome fear because they learn they will only get attention from people if they interact without fear. By reinforcing non-shy responses, the dog is more likely to do what is required again;

 •  To build complex behaviours quickly, especially those involving several steps, by using the clicker to identify and reinforce correct responses;

● To teach tricks that entertain people.

How Do You Use Clicker Training?

After you have taught your pet to recognize the sound of the clicker, it’s time to teach him how to perform behaviours. This is done by first clicking only when he performs the desired behaviour, then following with a treat (or other reinforcement). After repeating this process several times, you should stop giving treats and see if your pet will continue performing the behaviour. He almost certainly will since he has learned that correct performance brings rewards.

How Can You Use Clicker Training at Home?

Clicker Training can be used for many different things. Here are some common training scenarios and how Clicker Trainers might approach them:

To get attention from a shy dog — Use food as a lure; click/treat each time the dog looks at the person. Then shape by reinforcing eye contact for increasingly longer durations each time the dog looks at that person.

To teach a puppy to walk on a leash — First place a treat in front of and slightly to one side of your puppy’s nose. As soon as his nose moves even slightly toward the treat, click/treat. Watch carefully; you should see him move his head just enough to be able to smell and then eat the treat. Then repeat with the other side: place another treat there, but this time ask him to turn his head (this is making it easy for him). When he does so, click/treat again (he ate the treat as he was turning), then repeat from the original position. Gradually increase the number of steps he will take to get to each treat (he will naturally start walking toward it). Add a cue, such as “Let’s go!” and repeat.

To teach your dog to sit — First, place a treat by his nose so that his head is up and he cannot see you. As soon as his nose moves up even slightly, click/treat; then give him the treat by his head. Repeat many times until he begins responding automatically just because he hears the clicker; then add the word “sit” after you click/treat each time he does it on his own. Remember that any time you give something valuable — food or attention in this case— first make your dog earn it.

To teach a dog to lie down — First, place a treat by his nose so that his head is up and he cannot see you. As soon as his nose moves up even slightly, click/treat; then give him the treat by his head. Repeat many times until he begins responding automatically just because he hears the clicker; then add the word “down” after you click/treat each time he does it on his own. Remember that any time you give something valuable — food or attention in this case— first make your dog earn it.

How can you use clicker training at work?

Here are some ideas:

To get attention from a shy or scared dog —Have everyone stand very still, click/treat anytime the dog looks at someone. Then add movement (clicking and treating any time the dog makes eye contact and staying perfectly still until he does; eventually you can phase out the clicker as your dog becomes more comfortable).

To teach your pet to enjoy nail trims — Put him on a leash and have someone hold his favourite treat close to his nose so that he can smell it but cannot bite it right away. Click when he looks at it. Repeat several times in a row; each time you click, give him a treat by his head, not from hand-to-mouth because this is a different experience. Then try holding the treat a little lower so he can reach it without straining his neck up. If he tries to get the treat by jumping up, hold it even lower. Gradually move your hand as well as his head slightly downward until you are actually applying very gentle pressure to his muzzle with one hand while clicking and giving him a treat from the other hand. By now he will be inching (or leaping) forward on his elbows to get that delicious snack! That’s when you’ll know you have made nail trims absolutely wonderful for him. Now you can extend that experience into trimming feet, ears, tail – any body part that needs attention

To teach your pet to enjoy grooming — Brush him regularly and click and treat as soon as he shows any interest in the brush. Then gradually make the brushing more intense, clicking and treating only when he is still; then add some length to each session (click/treat for a few seconds of calm before ending on a good note). When you are ready to bathe or dry your dog, place him in a grooming noose, wait until he accepts it calmly, and click/treat each time he stops struggling. Gradually increase the time spent in the noose while decreasing your effort (let it rest lightly on his shoulders instead of holding it tightly around his neck) so that this becomes another wonderful experience for him.

To teach your pet to enjoy being touched — Pet him with light, quick flicks of your finger along his body. Click and treat each time he accepts this touch without moving away or flinching. Gradually make the touches longer and firmer while decreasing your speed (until you are petting him normally)— again, clicking and treating only when he remains still.

If your goal is to teach a dog to be still for grooming, health exams or nail trims, train in short sessions—anywhere from 10 seconds to three minutes —and end on a good note, such as the dog sitting calmly instead of struggling. This builds enthusiasm for training rather than fear about being handled.

Positive reinforcement sounds like a breeze compared with other methods of training but it requires that you plan ahead; otherwise, you’ll be training your pet to do the wrong thing. The idea is to reward the dog every time he does something right so that he will want to keep doing it again and again.

If your pet does what you didn’t expect—like jumping on a guest when all you wanted him to do was say hello —you can still click/treat if you do it before your pet gets into trouble or creates a problem for himself ( like rudely blocking access to his food bowl ). If he has already gotten into trouble as soon as possible, take him back 5 seconds in time by saying “Oops” or “Try again”, pretend you are going to ask him for a behaviour and then whatever reaction he gives. Wait until he gives the right behaviour and then click/treat.

If you find it impossible to get your pet to do what you want him to, try clicking him for just being in the same room with you (or at least in his own space) until he understands that good thing happen when he is near you. Over time this will help your pet learn how to earn attention by staying calm rather than acting crazy.

Cons of clicker training.

Really the only cons of clicker training are that you have to be more careful about what you say around your dog so he doesn’t get confused. For example, if you come home from work and say “We missed you!” while taking off your coat, your dog might think you are talking to him because he was gone all day. One way to handle this is by pairing a no-mark with whatever word or phrase might otherwise cause confusion: “Oops” can mean “I didn’t mean it” when you accidentally step on his paw; “Aha!” means “You did something really good!” when he is being praised for coming in from the yard; “Try Again” means that there will be another chance.

What about those old-fashioned training tools such as choke chains, prong collars, and so on?

I’m not a fan of these kinds of devices. They are going to hurt your dog (even if you don’t “mean” for it to happen), teach him bad habits (like pulling the leash) instead of teaching him how to walk nicely on a loose leash without choking himself, and put the issue off until tomorrow when you can figure out how to get rid of them.

But if you already have one and need to find a way to wean yourself from it, try “linking” rather than luring. If you lure your dog to sit by holding a treat in front of him then gradually inch it farther and farther away until he will sit without a treat in sight, why not just stand still instead of moving the treat? The next step is to lift up your hand (which has been holding the lure) slightly so that your dog can see some movement in his peripheral vision and give him time to realize that this motion means a chance for a click/treat. Eventually, you should be able to point at an object or place it on the floor, pause, move your arm out as though you were about to hold the treat, wait for your dog to look at it, click/treat.

If you can’t part with a choke or prong collar, try using them as muzzles: attach a long line (at least 20 feet) to the ring on the front and allow your dog to drag it around the house without having access to furniture or carpets that he could ruin. As soon as he starts chewing something inappropriate—whatever object is included in his “down-stay” command —give him an immediate correction by tugging firmly on the leash and then release him again when he settles down.

Another alternative is to leave the choke chains on but doesn’t use them for corrections. Instead make sure they are loose enough so that they jingle every time your dog moves his head, which will happen quite often. This can be a really effective way to teach him that jingling means he did something right and doesn’t require any further attention from you other than maybe a click/treat.

What’s wrong with food?

Nothing is wrong with training using food as a reward; the problem comes when people are not willing to put in the work to figure out what their dogs really like (and don’t like). In most cases, it’s safer to assume that up until the age of one year—when socialization has usually begun—a puppy is going to enjoy high-value treats more than anything else you might have around the house: cheddar cheese, roast beef, chicken, turkey, ham. For older dogs, you can still use such treats as high-value but your options increase to include liver, peas, to train: with “dog food.”

You might be wondering about using people’s food. My response is always the same: go ahead and do it if you feel it works for you and your dog—but don’t come running to me when he gets fat! If he doesn’t know how many calories are in each piece of toast or slice of pizza, it’s up to you to keep track. Otherwise, I advise sticking with high-value dog treats.

What about bribing?

I’ve never been a fan of the term “bribery” because it has such negative connotations—we only bribe people when we don’t value them. It is, however, an accurate description of what happens when you use food to get your dog to do something he would rather not do. But I am a proponent of rewards in general and I’m not going to deny that food is often used as a reward for training our dogs.

The technique I always recommend for using treats during training sessions is called “linking,” which means that the treat follows the desired behaviour immediately so that the dog makes no distinction between doing the right thing and getting the treat; they are on equal footing.

If your dog absolutely will not work for any type of treat you might ever own or find in your house, try using his kibble as a reward so he can fill his tummy with something besides air while he is learning new behaviours. If that doesn’t work for some reason then use something else that is more familiar and desirable to him: say, if he really likes to play with a particular toy or maybe something you know is going to be in your next treat bag, like liver or cheese.

If you’re having trouble getting a behaviour started, consider adding some sort of secondary reward such as opening and closing the refrigerator door, or rattling some empty Tupperware containers (for those dogs who just love stashing things). If necessary, you can move on to using verbal praise only but wait until the behaviour is well established and then gradually start cutting back on the treats; many people find that it’s easy to get their dogs’ attention using food when they start with it at very high value and then work down from there.

Where do I keep the clicker?

A clicker (or a marker pen) should always be kept in your pocket or on your belt—but not attached to the leash as it might get lost during a training session. You only want one hand free when you’re working with your dog, so hold the leash as usual in that hand while you use the other one to make corrections and rewards.

What if I don’t have a clicker?

Clickers are wonderful tools because they allow us to give our dogs very clear information (“yes! this is what I want”) but we can also train almost any type of behaviour without them by using verbal markers instead: saying “good” just before giving the reward. Or even better, saying something like “yes!” or “good!” in an upbeat tone of voice and at the same time delivering either a treat or some other reward.

I always recommend playing with your dog using clicker training techniques, mainly because it’s fun but also because you never know when you might need to give him a clear signal to show him exactly what behaviour is expected of him—so why not get used to it?

How do I introduce a new word as a marker?

When you first start training your dog with food treats, make sure they’re very high value. You can use small pieces of cheese, hot dogs, deli meat or anything else that really makes your dog drool. Then simply say “yes” just before the treat: immediately repeat this about three times and always wait until the dog has finished eating the treat before you give him another one. Keep repeating it at random moments during playtime but don’t use your marker to get your dog’s attention or to try to interrupt bad behaviour because that could cause confusion.

Beginners often make two mistakes with this step: either they say “yes” too quietly so the dog doesn’t hear them (that’s why I suggest saying it in a positive tone of voice) or they say it seconds after the reward is given, which means they’re just offering information on when he should expect his treat—they aren’t really marking what he did right.

How do I start shaping?

Shaping allows you to train complex behaviours by breaking them down into very small segments, teaching your dog that each one is worth a treat and then gradually adding other pieces. For example, if you want to get rid of “bad” behaviour like jumping up on people, you could reward your dog for any behaviour you like that is lower than standing on two legs—like sitting or crouching. Then you would raise the criteria every time by rewarding behaviours that are closer and closer to what you really want until he gets it right: standing still with all four feet on the ground while facing his target person.

Teaching people-pleasing behaviours like walking through doorways without jumping onto them, or to sit and wait for his dinner bowl is a good way to use shaping as well.

What should I do if my dog has bad habits?

When you already have a certain “bad” behaviour established, it’s better not to correct it with an aversive such as scolding, pushing down on the chest (the dog learning to go limp so you don’t have to hold him down) or a collar jerk. The best way to get rid of it is to replace it with another behaviour and reward that instead, as well as giving the dog lots of praise when he’s offering what we want. Say “no” and then ignore him for about 10 seconds, followed by a phrase like “What should we do instead?” but say it in a cheery voice. It doesn’t matter if he has no idea what to do instead; when you offer him the chance to guess and then reward any behaviour other than the one you don’t want, he’ll quickly learn that keeping his body parts on the floor (without leaning on you when he’s standing next to you) is a nice and rewarding thing to do.

Who should I use as my target person?

When training specific behaviours, such as asking for permission before getting on the couch or bed or going through a door, it’s kinder and more effective to introduce your dog to a new type of person in his life, rather than ask him to ignore or avoid people he knows well.

When you’re teaching your dog that there are at least two types of human—Mum/Dad who lives alone and are always the highest value treat provider and another person with different rules who can also give rewards—your dog doesn’t have to worry that he’s missing out on all the fun when you go away. He can be confident that someone else will come along and give him more attention, treats and playtime.

The beauty of using a training method based on positive reinforcement is that once your pet has learned a behaviour, he will continue to repeat it because he’s expecting his favourite reward—a tasty treat! Clicker Trainers are also able to teach their pets complex tricks and behaviours that may not be possible with other training methods. Clicker Training is also a great way for pet owners to bond with their pets while having fun together.

So what are you waiting for? Click your way to a more rewarding relationship with your pet today!

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