Clicker Training 101: A Quick Beginner’s Guide

Clicker Training 101: A Quick Beginner’s Guide

If you’re just getting started with training your dog, you’ve probably encountered the term “clicker training” at least once or twice.

Maybe you’ve overheard another student in your obedience class raving enthusiastically about how she uses a clicker to teach her new puppy fancy tricks at home.  Or, perhaps it’s been mentioned in a training book or article you read – but you weren’t quite sure what it meant.

If you’ve ever seen someone using a clicker to work with their dog, the process can definitely seem mysterious (or even somewhat magical!) to the uninitiated eye.  Is the click supposed to tell the dog what to do?  Does it mean sit, or come, or lie down?  Does it stop bad behavior?

Or what?

If you have no idea what a clicker is for, or why you might want to use one, then keep reading!  Today’s post is for you.

So, first things first.  What IS a clicker, anyway?

A clicker is a small plastic device that fits in your hand, with a button makes a distinctive “CLICK” sound when pressed.  (Hence the name.)

There are various shapes and styles on the market – some are louder and some are softer, and certain types may be more comfortable to hold or press than others.  Which type of clicker you choose is largely a matter of personal preference, but I’ll include a link to some examples at the end of today’s post.

In training, you use the clicker to mark the precise moment that your dog does something correctly.  The click is always followed immediately by a treat – every time, without fail.  It won’t take long for your pup to figure out that the sound of the clicker is a wonderful thing, because it always predicts that a treat is coming.

For example:  If you’re using a clicker to teach your dog to sit, you want to click as soon as his rear end touches the ground.  Then give a treat.  Easy-peasy, right?  Once your dog catches on, he’ll begin to sit right away as soon as you ask, since he knows that this behavior will earn him a click and treat.

All right, you might say.  Seems pretty straightforward.  But so what?  Isn’t it easier to just praise him and reward with a treat when he sits, without using the clicker at all?

Well…

As with so many things in dog training, it depends.

For most dogs, it’s pretty simple to teach basic skills like sit, lie down, come, etc. without a clicker.  I actually don’t routinely use clickers in my beginner obedience classes, for this reason – these behaviors are easy to train using praise and food rewards alone, and I find that adding in the clicker can be confusing for novice dog owners who are already struggling to manage the leash and treat bag without dropping everything on the floor.

So it’s true – for your average Labrador puppy who just needs to learn how to sit, you can probably accomplish this just as easily without a clicker.

BUT…

Here’s where clicker training gets very cool!  There are, in fact, a number of situations where using a clicker can be a game-changing advantage.

Consider the following examples:

Training a retrieve, or doing distance work

Normally, when we want to train a new behavior, we do this by giving the dog a treat (or other reward) at the specific moment he does what we want.  So, as in the example of teaching “sit” above – we need to give the treat just as the dog’s rear end touches the ground.  Timing is important!

But what happens if we can’t reward at the right moment, because the behavior itself is incompatible with eating a treat?  Let’s say I want to train my competition obedience dog to retrieve a dumbbell on command.  It’s physically impossible for me to reward him as he’s in the act of grabbing it with his mouth – he has to spit it out to eat the treat, which means I’m actually rewarding him for dropping the dumbbell rather than picking it up.

So what to do?

This is where the clicker comes in handy.  If my timing is good, I can click just as my dog picks up the dumbbell – this marks the specific behavior that’s being rewarded, so it doesn’t matter that he’s not actually holding it anymore by the time he collects his treat.  The click tells him that it’s the pick-up (or hold), rather than the drop, that I want.  Pretty neat!

The same goes for teaching behaviors at a distance from the handler, like a sit or down from across the room.  You can’t physically pop a treat into your dog’s mouth at the exact moment he drops to the ground on your signal if you’re standing 30 feet away – but you can click when he gets it right, and then toss his treat to him or let him come and collect it.

Improving clarity and precision

In some cases, it may not be as easy as you think to praise and reward for the behavior you want.  The clicker can be very useful for these situations as well!

Let’s say you have a very excitable young dog who has a hard time sitting still, jumps on people to greet them, and leaps up to snatch treats from your hand during training class.  You want to teach him to stand quietly with all four feet on the floor – but how can you do this, when he starts to jump and bark as soon as you try to reward him?

Using a clicker, you can do it easily.

Keep the treats in your pocket, and your hands behind your back.  Wait for the dog to stop moving on his own, just for a split second – then click that moment of stillness, and drop a treat on the floor for him to eat.  He may get excited again, which is fine.  Just wait.

Sooner or later, he’ll stop moving again and stand still.  Immediately click, and drop another treat.  Keep clicking and treating as long as he keeps four feet on the floor.  If he gets wound up and starts jumping again, just stop and wait for stillness – then click and treat.  Within a few minutes, you can have a dog who is happily standing still and watching you attentively, rather than leaping all over you and mugging your hand for treats.

The clicker allows you to make it clear exactly what you are rewarding for – standing still – even when it only happens for a moment.

“Hands off” training for any behavior

Most obedience training for beginner dogs is done by using a food lure to get the desired behavior, then giving a reward when the dog gets it right.  For example, you might hold a treat in front of your dog’s nose, and slowly bring it down to the floor to lure him into a “down” position.

This approach works very well for most dogs, especially for basic skills – and it’s intuitive and easy for most owners to grasp.  Nothing wrong with this at all!

However… it might interest you to know that this isn’t the only way to teach your dog something new.

Using a clicker allows you to take advantage of a different training technique, called shaping.  Essentially, this means that you sit back and allow your dog to figure out on his own what he can do to earn a reward – without any luring or prompting.  Just click and treat for each baby step in the right direction, until you have the finished behavior.

For example, let’s say I want to shape my dog to lie down on a mat.  At first, I’ll click and toss him a bite of food every time he looks at the mat, even if it’s just a brief glance.  Pretty soon, he figures out that the mat is the key to getting treats!  Eventually, he’ll offer to take a step towards it – I’ll click and reward for this.

From there, it’s a matter of waiting for my dog to do just a tiny bit more for each click.  Sniffing the mat – click and treat.  One paw on the mat – click and treat.  Both front paws on – click and treat.  All four paws on the mat – click and treat.

At this point, I have a dog who can’t wait to run over to the mat and stand on it in order to earn a click – all without getting out of my chair, or giving him any prompting at all.  Pretty cool!

From there, if he’s used to clicker training, he might offer a sit or down on the mat – if so, I’ll definitely click and reward this!  If not, I can lure the down at first to help him out… then wait for him to offer it on his own later on.

It can take a bit longer in the beginning to shape a new behavior rather than luring it, but it’s tremendously fun to watch your pup using his brain independently to figure things out.  Your dog will probably be a fan, too – most dogs LOVE shaping, once they understand the game.

If your interest is piqued, I would definitely recommend doing some additional reading to learn more about the nuances of this type of training.  You’ll be glad you did!  I will provide links to a couple of my favorite beginner books on clicker training at the end of the post, for reference.

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Finally, a few FAQs and misunderstandings that I often see:

Q: What’s so special about a clicker?  Can’t I accomplish the same thing by saying “good dog”?

A: Well… yes and no.  Certainly, most dogs readily learn that praise from you is often linked to getting a reward in training.  But the advantage of using a clicker (or some other marker signal) is that it’s a crisp, clear, unique sound that can’t be mistaken for anything else.  Most of us talk to our dogs a lot, so it’s easy for verbal praise to get lost in the constant barrage of words that they hear – which muddies the waters when we’re trying to communicate.  The click stands out!

That being said, other types of marker signals can absolutely be used in the same way as a clicker.  Marine mammal trainers often use whistles for the same purpose.  Deaf dogs can be trained using a flashlight or “thumbs up” as a visual marker signal.  In a pinch, a verbal “yes!” can be used in the same way during training sessions – I do this often myself, to mark something specific that I want to reward if I don’t have a clicker handy.

Q: Do I always have to give a treat after I click, or can the click be a reward by itself?

A: Yes, you do need to continue giving a treat every time you click – no matter how long you have been working with your dog.  Remember that the click is only meaningful to your dog because it predicts that a treat is coming!  Unless it’s consistently paired with a “real” reward (a primary reinforcer, in behavior science parlance), the clicker will quickly lose its power.

If you click, you must give a treat.  Always.  No exceptions.

Q: If I use the clicker to train a behavior, will I have to continue using it forever?

A: No – never fear!  The clicker is mainly useful as a way of communicating clearly with your dog during the learning phase of a new skill.  Once your pup is confidently performing the desired behavior on cue, you can phase out the clicker and just reward with a treat by itself, or with any other type of reward you choose.

Q: Can I use the clicker to tell my dog to do something, or to interrupt an undesirable behavior (like barking, jumping, etc.)

A: No, this is not how the clicker is meant to be used.  The “CLICK” sound marks the behavior you want to reward – nothing more, nothing less.  It is not a cue for your dog to do anything in particular.

You also shouldn’t click when your dog is doing something you don’t want, like barking for attention or jumping up to say hello.  Remember that the click tells your dog, in effect, “Yes!  That’s correct.  You’ve just earned a treat.”  So be careful what you click for!

If you need to interrupt an unwanted behavior, give your dog a specific cue instead – call him to you, or ask him to sit or lie down.  Then you can reward him for listening, and redirect him to some other activity.

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Below is a bit more info on different types of clickers, as well as some recommended reading if you’re interested in learning more.  Product links provided are Amazon affiliate links, but you can also find clickers and training books from other online pet retailers like Dogwise and Clean Run, or at brick-and-mortar shops if you prefer.  Happy training! 🙂

Clicker types:

Box clickers (example: Petco Dog Training Clicker) – A basic, old-school, no-frills clicker.  This type of clicker is essentially a plastic box with a metal tab inside, which you press with your thumb to make the “CLICK sound.”  Be aware – these are quite loud!  They may be too noisy for sound sensitive dogs.  I use them sometimes when working outside, when the louder click can be useful.

Button clickers (example: PetSafe Clik-R Trainer) – These generally look more like a plastic oval or tear-drop, with a raised button to press.  I tend to prefer this style, especially for working in quiet indoor areas.  The click is much softer, so less likely to startle your dog, and the button is a bit more user-friendly than the metal tab in most box clickers.

Recommended reading:

Getting Started: Clicker Training for Dogs, by Karen Pryor – This is a great beginner book on clicker training, by the queen of clicker training herself!  Karen Pryor was largely responsible for introducing clicker training to the dog world in the 1990s, and remains one of the most prominent public voices in the field.  She explains things for beginners in a way that is both scientifically sound and easy to understand.

Clicking With Your Dog: Step-By-Step in Pictures (Karen Pryor Clicker Books), by Peggy Tillman – Another great book for beginners.  I especially like this one because it has lots of illustrations to help you “see” what things should look like at every step.  Very handy for visual learners!

On the web, you may also want to check out www.clickertraining.com.  This site has a wealth of information and articles on specific topics related to clicker training, including detailed advice on training specific behaviors using the clicker.  Also lots of good info on clicker training with other species – cats, horses, etc.

3 thoughts on “Clicker Training 101: A Quick Beginner’s Guide

  1. Outstanding blog! Perfect length as an introduction. Concisely written in a “friendly” style. Covers the many reasons to use a clicker. The Q&A continues to dispel the, “OK, BUTs” the unknowledgeable or the wary may have.

    This blog doesn’t talk down to the reader, but also doesn’t overwhelm her/him with the language already used by trainers or the scientific community. So often these types of blogs end up only preaching to the choir and defeats its intended purpose–to educate.

    Good education whets the reader’s appetite and this blog does exactly that! Wonderful resource provided.
    Bravo!

    With permission and authorship provided, this would be an excellent pre-class email handout or marketing tool by clicker dog trainers.

    1. Thanks very much for such a thoughtful comment! I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

      I think it’s important to make these topics accessible for dog owners who may not have any particular background in training or behavior science. That’s always been one of my main goals for the blog, in general, so thanks for the vote of confidence 🙂

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