Contributed by Irith Bloom, faculty at Victoria Stilwell Academy and certified animal trainer with multiple certifications, including CPDT-KSA, CDBC, VSPDT, KPA CTP, and CBATI.
If you’re interested in dog training, you’ve probably heard the phrase “clicker training.” Clickers are very popular in basic dog training, for good reason. The clicker is a great tool to use when you train your dog—or cat, rabbit, horse, llama or goat—the list goes on and on.
As you’ve probably realized by now, I focus on positive reinforcement training methods. I also happen to be a big fan of clicker training—it’s usually the first training method I turn to when working with a new animal. When people ask me how to train a dog, I suggest they look into clicker training basics.
NOTE: “Clicker training” is shorthand for “marker-based positive reinforcement training.” I use the phrase “clicker training” throughout this article, but that doesn’t always mean there will be a training clicker involved. The training may use a different marker in some cases.
What is a Clicker?
In case you haven’t seen one, a clicker is a small box that makes a click noise when you press on it the right way. There are several kinds of clickers that are commonly used in dog training. One example is the Starmark Pro-Training Clicker Dog Training Aid that has a handy button to press. The Downtown Pet Supply Training Dog Clicker is a slightly smaller, and slightly differently shaped clicker that also features an easy-to-press button. It’s worth trying more than one type of clicker to see which works well in your hand.
A clicker is an example of a marker. A “marker,” or more properly, “event marker,” marks, or indicates, the moment something happens. For our dog training purposes, that is the moment the right behavior happens. In other words, you use the clicker’s clicking sound to mark the moment your pet performs the desired behavior. The click (or other marker) is then followed by a treat the animal likes, such as a small piece of cut-up beef jerky or a Zuke’s mini.
Over time, the animal learns that the click sound signals that good stuff is coming. Since the click signals good stuff, the animal learns to pay attention to when the click happened, and to repeat whatever they were doing to earn another click and treat. This is very useful as you train your dog.
Using the Clicker Correctly
I use a variety of clickers, depending on how loud the environment is and what the animal prefers, among other factors. The key to clicker training basics is not choosing the right clicker; it’s using the clicker the right way. That means:
- Clicking for what you want to see more of (e.g., when teaching a sit, click as your dog’s rear-end touches the ground).
- Always following the click with a treat—but being careful to click first and then treat.
Clicker Training Basics
- Always feed after you click, even if you clicked at the wrong time. Follow every click with a treat so that the animal learns that clicks always lead to food. If there are too many “orphan clicks” (clicks with no food), the animal will decide the click is meaningless and stop paying attention to it.
- Keep your clicker hand still. The only thing that should move when you click is the part of the hand—usually the thumb and forefinger—that makes the click happen. If there are other movements when you click, the animal may start to watch your body, rather than listen for the click. Since our movements are often inconsistent, your animal may get the wrong idea if he is watching you move, rather than listening for the click.
- Keep your treat hand still, and your treats out of sight, until after the click. If you are waving treats around, the dog is much less likely to notice the click. One good way to keep dog treats out of your hands and (relatively) out of sight until after the click is by using a treat pouch, such as the Starmark Pro-Training Treat Pouch for Dogs. It can also be nice to have your clicker attached to your wrist for easy access, as with this clicker: Starmark Pro-Training Clicker Deluxe Dog Training Aid.
Eye Contact and Attention Training
Now that you know the clicker training basics, let’s look at how to train eye contact and attention using a clicker. I teach eye contact to just about every animal I work with, and it’s usually the first thing I work on when doing basic dog training with a new client. Here are the steps:
- Put five to ten small treats in your training pouch and make sure you have your clicker.
- Stand near your dog and simply wait quietly.
- As soon as your dog glances in your direction, click and then feed your dog a treat. Don’t worry if the dog doesn’t look you right in the eye; simply click for any look in your general direction.
- Then wait quietly (again).
- Click and then treat as soon as your dog glances in your direction (again).
- Repeat until you run out of treats.
NOTE: Feed the treat low or to the side, so your dog has to look away to eat the trea
Increase the Difficulty Over Time
As your dog gets better at this, you can increase the difficulty by waiting to click until the dog is looking you right in the eye, or by holding out for longer eye contact. You can also start moving around, so your dog has to come find you to make eye contact.
One more note: If your dog doesn’t get the behavior right, that’s OK. Simply wait to click. There is no need to say no or get angry. In fact, saying no or getting angry may actually make the training take longer. Your dog will quickly learn that the absence of a click means “try something different.”
A clicker is a great tool for basic dog training and can help you improve your relationship with your dog. Incorporate this aid into training your dog basic commands and see for yourself why clicker training is a popular teaching method.