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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  1. Practice your clicker timing. This step has nothing to do with the dog; it’s all about you. Your goal here is to become proficient at clicking when you see something that you want the dog to repeat, only you’ll be practicing without the dog. Have a friend toss a ball straight up into the air (or do it yourself). Click when the ball reaches the highest point. Repeat often until you are confident with your clicker timing.
  2. Prepare the rewards.
    Find some really delicious treats. I use Natural Balance, a healthy dog food that comes in a tube, chopped into pea-sized pieces. It does have sugar in it, so you may want to find something else. Freshly cooked turkey or chicken also work well. One dog I know goes crazy over bits of an orange, and another loves bananas. In general, you want to use something small and soft, so the dog gets a nibble of a treat, swallows it, and is ready to work for more. Toys make excellent treats, but they take time to deliver, so treats are better at this stage.
  3. (optional) Charge the clicker (aka “Magazine Training). If the dog is shy or does not know you well, first associate the click sound with a treat. If you’re using a different marker, like “yes” or a hand signal, I’d charge that too.If the dog does not appear to be startled at all by the clicker, you can move on to the next stage. Clicker trainers used to believe that the clicker had to be charged up for every dog, but new research shows that isn’t necessary.Initially, the click has no meaning to the dog. In this step, you’re not looking for a particular behavior, just click and treat. The only thing to be careful of is that you don’t click while your dog is doing something you don’t want her to do (like jump, bark, or whine).Click, treat. Pause click, treat.
    Longer pause, click, treat.
    Shorter pause, click, treat.Do that ten or fifteen times Try to vary the time for the pauses so that she knows that the click is what tells her the food is coming. Do that again a few hours later. Once she starts to look for treats after she’s heard the click, you’re ready to teach her how to make you click.
  4. Start to teach a behavior using SHAPING. Now you are ready to teach a behavior. You are teaching her that she can MAKE you click and give her a treat. In the process of teaching this first behavior, you are teaching her how to learn from you. Read through all of the steps below before continuing. If she is ahead of the game, you can move faster through the steps, but only if you know where you’re going! One of the best behaviors to teach at this stage is targeting a wooden dowel with a piece of tape on one end. The reason? Dogs tend to offer the behaviors they already know when you are trying to teach the next behavior. The first behavior learned using the clicker is one of the strongest. Since this behavior will use a prop, if it’s not there, she can’t offer the behavior. So she’ll have to give you something else. Alternatively, you can teach her to look at you as her first clicker-trained behavior.Once you have a dog that knows how to target a wooden dowel, you can use that to teach her to turn on light switches with her nose, stop in the contact zones for agility, close doors, or just be cute pushing a ball around!NOTE: You won’t put a cue on the targeting behavior until much later (see below). Right now, you want her to figure out what to do to make you click. So zip your lip, except to give praise. Start with the target stick behind your back or otherwise out of sight. Hold the stick and the clicker in the same hand. Then hold the stick out to her. If she makes any move toward it, like sniffing, head turning, ear flick, anything, click and treat (C/T). Put the stick behind your back while she’s eating her treat. Then repeat. Do that for maybe ten times or so and give a big reward for the last one.Then stop, put the stick away while she’s eating, and go do something else. You don’t want to tire her out. Come back to it later (a few hours later or even the next day…) If she likes to play fetch, now is a good time to do it.
  5. Reward yourself.
    You’re juggling a lot of things here. Reward yourself for doing such a good job and being so patient with your dog. Go take a nap, call a friend, or do something else that makes you happy.
  6. Raise your criteria.
    This time, you can start to make it harder to get food. When she starts to offer behavior that meets criteria without hesitation, change your criteria. For example, now she has to touch the stick somewhere with her muzzle (not her paws!) to get the treats. Click every time that she touches it with her muzzle. Stop before she gets tired. If she looks eager to go, really eager, move on to the next step.
  7. Raise your criteria again. This time, she has to touch the stick even when it’s moved to different positions (after she’s warmed up). Any time she touches the stick in these new positions, give her a reward. If she’s tired, or looks like she’ll tire soon, stop. Otherwise, go on. Keep in mind we still aren’t calling this behavior anything. The stick itself is the cue.
  8. Raise your criteria again, and again, and again. In your next session, she has to touch the target stick close to the end — after she’s warmed up. The next time, she has to touch the end. Then you may want her to touch and hold her nose there. Reward only the long holds (half a second at first, then one second…) You want to make it harder each time, but not impossible. Set her up for success. If she tries more than twice with no reward, then you have probably made it too hard. Find a step in between what she used to get rewarded for and what you want her to do.
  9. Put the behavior on cue.
    After she’s touching the end quickly and accurately, you can put it on cue. Have the stick behind your back, say “TOUCH”, then pull out the stick. She won’t even notice the word, at first, but then she’ll get it down after a while. Every time you ask her to “touch” and she does, click and treat. Occasionally present the stick without saying “Touch” and then if she touches it, take the target away. If she doesn’t touch it after a short period of time (start with 1/2 second), present the target and say Touch. Click/treat for the touch. Continue at this stage until she touches when you say Touch and waits for you to tell her if you just present the target. Exception: if you want her to touch without the cue, so the target itself always cues touching, skip the second half of this step.
  10. Start rewarding intermittently. This step is extremely important, because it makes her less likely to give up if you ever don’t give her a treat. Think about a slot machine versus a coke machine. If you put your money in for a coke and get nothing back, you probably won’t put any more money in. You expect a coke every time. But with a slot machine, you don’t expect a reward and yet you are hooked. Dogs are gambling addicts, so use that to your advantage! Start back where you left off, rewarding three or four times for touching the end of the stick on cue. If she is constantly going to touch the stick with her nose, you can start rewarding intermittently. Occasionally just praise her, no food reward or click, and put the stick back behind your back. Reward an average of one in two responses, but not every other one. Otherwise, she will notice the pattern. Since you aren’t rewarding every time, you can make sure to choose the good responses. After a while, you can switch to Yes and treat instead of click and treat. As always, end with a good response a big reward (handful of treats on the floor does well for this). Put away your clicker, treats, and target stick while she’s munching.
  11. Take it on the road. When you go to a new location, or add more distractions, you have to lower your criteria (click for a response that’s not as good, at first). Practice in different rooms of the house, with more and more distractions. If she knows other cues, mix those in: SIT, DOWN, TOUCH, treat. DOWN, TOUCH, SIT, DOWN, treat. And so on. Then head out to the yard. With other behaviors, you’ll want to go further, like the sidewalk, down the street, to the dog park, etc. Each time the environment changes, she might act like she has no idea what “touch” means. That’s absolutely normal and she isn’t being stubborn or willful. She just has no idea what you mean, in this new context. Just go fast forward through the shaping process again, as a refresher. As always, remember to keep sessions short and upbeat, always ending on a good note.

The same basic steps outlined above for shaping can be used to teach your dog to target your hand (useful for walks), or almost anything you want, from ringing a bell (to go outside) to spinning in a circle to fetching to barking on cue. Get creative!

The clicker can also be used in conjunction with LURING and CAPTURING.With luring, you use the target stick or a piece of food to get the dog to offer the behavior, or some approximation of it. Stop using the lure as soon as possible and use shaping to finish up the behavior. With capturing, you click and treat whenever the dog offers a complete behavior. For example, to teach a dog to stretch, find out the times and situations when she will stretch. Then, just before you know she will stretch, say “stretch” and when she is stretching, click and treat. Soon she will be offering the stretch more and more. Click and treat each time, attempting to say the cue before, or at least during the stretch. Clicking your dog for making eye contact with you is another great use of capturing. Have fun!

How to tell the difference between a trainer that uses the clicker and a clicker trainer (and why you should care)

Clicker trainers use the clicker to shape behavior – they make the dog responsible for its own learning. Other trainers use the clicker, but they do a lot of luring and just use the clicker to mark the behavior. Luring is not bad for getting started, and just about all clicker trainers do some luring, but shaping is when the clicker truly shines. If shaping isn’t part of the trainer’s repertoire, at least, then they aren’t really a clicker trainer. Some trainers even use a clicker along a choke chain or prong collar, which makes the clicker virtually useless. Clicker trainers focus on reinforcing behavior.

If the trainer is doing all of the action, the power of the clicker is not fully utilized. I have heard people say they have tried clicker training and given it up, because the clicker didn’t help all that much. Those people didn’t use the clicker as a shaping tool. Animals (including humans) that are taught to problem solve are much faster learners. The problem is that luring seems faster – the dog goes through the motions of the behavior much sooner. In puppy class, we do a lot of luring, because I want to get to the socialization part sooner, but keep people satisfied because their dogs are learning the basics. The payoff of free shaping is that you end up with a smart, well-behaved dog, not just a well-behaved dog. That means that if you want to teach your dog something new, it’s a snap. The other payoff is that your dog will work for you without food in your hand – luring tends to make dogs very food-dependent, unless you are careful to wean off of the lure.

The easy way to tell a clicker trainer from a trainer-using-a-clicker is to watch who’s moving more when going over a new behavior. If the human is the one initiating movement, that human is not using the full power of clicker training.[/s2If]

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

[vc_video link=”https://vimeo.com/124851610″]