What is Clicker Training? How Do You Use It to Train a Dog?

Box Clicker
Box Clicker and Bean

When dolphin trainers want to get a perfect jump from their charges, they don't put a leash on the dolphin, ask it to jump, then 'correct' the dolphin for not jumping and manually put it through the jumping motions. For one thing, the dolphin's body isn't well-suited to a leash. For another, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to physically manipulate the dolphin into a jump. Finally, the dolphin would get back at the trainer -- probably dousing her with a big splash of water or tossing her out of the pool (a favorite tactic of killer whales)!

In answer to this dilemma, marine mammal trainers began using Behavior Analysis techniques pioneered by B.F. Skinner, Keller Breland, and Marian Breland Bailey. It was a way to teach animals to do tricks without physical manipulation or correction. Trainers first associated a whistle with a treat (in this case, a fish).

Once the dolphins began to expect the treat whenever they heard a whistle, the trainers began to whistle when the dolphin did something that looked like the trick they wanted. A little nose out of the water? Whistle, treat. Gradually, they got the dolphin to jump high into the air on cue, all using positive reinforcement. The process of starting small and gradually getting the behavior you want is called SHAPING. We describe that in detail below.

The idea of using a marker for desirable behavior was brought to world of pet dog training by marine mammal trainers like Karen Pryor, and dog trainers have done wonders with it. Dog trainers usually use a small box called a clicker. The clicker makes a distinctive sound when you press on it. It tells your dog “Yes, that is what I want you to do,” and it promises her a reward for a job well done. The clicker acts like the shutter of a camera, marking the exact moment she has done what you like. If you don't like using gadgets, your dog is afraid of the clicker or you can't use a clicker for some other reason, you can use a marker word, like "YES" to tell the dog when it's done something you like. You can also use a hand signal or the flash of a penlight if your dog is deaf. I will assume you are using a clicker below, but if you are using something else to mark the behavior, just use it in the places where I say to click. It is a good idea to use both a marker word and a clicker (not simultaneously). The clicker a stronger

reinforcer than "YES", but you almost always have your voice with you! I use the clicker to teach new behaviors, then switch over to a verbal marker when the dog understands what behavior I'm asking for.

Not sure it will work for your dog? Here's a (long) video of me clicker training Bean to go into his crate. Keep in mind you're seeing fairly early crate training, where the clicker is still being used.

Here are some steps to start teaching your dog (or cat or bird or rat) using the

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Here's a video I shot about Modern Animal Training. It's one of the free samples in the Member Library.