Many people have heard the term “clicker training” before and maybe have even seen the tools for sale in pet stores, but how do you actually use it to train your dog?
How to use the clicker:
The clicker is used when teaching new behaviors, and helps give us more precise timing when training our dogs. It tells our dog whatever behavior they were doing during that click is why they are getting the subsequent treat. Think of it like taking a picture of the behavior you are going to reward with the treat. Make sure to treat every time you click, even if it is on accident, or your dog isn’t paying attention right away. Click= Treat (every time!)
To charge the clicker, simply have the clicker in one hand, and a few treats in the other. Click, pause, then treat. Click, pause, then treat. Make sure not to move your treat hand while you click; this can distract your dog from listening to and processing the click. After 10-15 treats, switch hands, so you are clicking and treating from different hands. Once your dog understands what the clicker means, you don’t have to “charge” it again (This typically take about 20-30 repetitions). Now you can use it for training new behaviors. You can fade out use of the clicker once your dog thoroughly understands a behavior. The clicker is just a great tool for first training a behavior, but doesn’t need to be used forever.
What not to do:
Do not point the clicker at your dog like a remote- this can distract them from the click and may get the clicker too close to their ears, which some dogs are sensitive to.
Do not use the clicker to get your dog’s attention or call them to you from somewhere else. Remember, whatever your dog is doing when you click is what you are rewarding.
For example: your dog is ignoring you and looking away, and you click to get him to look your way. Your dog will probably look your way for the treat, but is being trained that ignoring you and looking away is what is getting him that treat—thus he will do it more in the future.
Which type of clicker should I use?
There are two main clicker designs.
One is a small box with a metal tongue inside that you press down to get the “clicking” sound. This is the cheapest type of clicker to buy. This clicker is a very audible, which is good if you are working outside or somewhere a little noisy. But for some dogs it can be too loud; if you have a sound sensitive dog, I don’t recommend using this one. Personally, I find that this clicker can be a little hard for me to press down to get the sound. If you have arthritis or difficulty with hand strength, I recommend using the “soft clicker” mentioned below.
The second main type of clicker is a small device with a raised button on top. This one makes a much quieter sound (hence being called a “soft clicker”), which is very nice for sound sensitive dogs. It is also very easy to push, though that makes it easier to accidentally click when you didn’t mean to. This one costs a little more than the box clicker, but should still be $5 or under.
You can also purchase a clicker with a wrist band, or buy a wrist band yourself and attach it to your clicker with a key ring. This way you can have your clicker handy, but don’t have to worry about dropping it.
What if I don’t want to use a clicker? There are too many things to hold while training my dog!
If adding a clicker on top of holding a leash and treats is too much, then I recommend using a marker word. While research shows that dogs learn much more quickly with a clicker than anything else, a marker word is better than no feedback or very slow feedback.
A marker word can be anything you choose, but it is best to have the word be short. For example, “Yes!” and “Good!” are commonly used marker words. When I use a marker word, I say the word in a higher pitched tone and try to remove the vowels. So instead of “Yeeessss” it becomes “Ys!”. Instead of “Gooooooooddddd” it becomes “Gd!”.
I want my marker word to sound different than commands, my normal speaking voice, or praise so my dog can understand the different purpose. It also needs to be short so it can mark the precise moment that the behavior occurs, just like the clicker. I do find that dogs pay much more attention to the clicker than the marker word, but I “charge” both the clicker and the marker word when training dogs so I have both tools at my disposal in case I forget my clicker.
To “charge” the marker word, follow the directions from above. A marker word is used in the same way as a clicker, so just substitute “Click and treat” for “Mark and treat”.
Example of using the clicker in training “Sit”:
You ask your dog to “Sit”, lure their head up and back, and Click! the moment their butt hits the ground. Then treat. Remember, if you click, you must treat. Once your dog has learned the behavior and you are slowly easing back on treats, then you can just treat and/or praise.