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How Does Clicker Dog Training Work?

Updated on September 9, 2012

Clicker Dog Training - Does it Work?

I have always been a huge skeptic when it comes to clicker training but have recently come to the humbling conclusion that I perhaps been wrong! Imagine that!

Having begun training our malamute puppy who is currently 8-1/2 months old and weighing in at just under 75 pounds, I have decided to rethink my training methods and am actually finding that the clicker is the best solution I could have possibly stumbled upon.

I can’t even take credit for figuring it out on my own – it was in fact our trainer at puppy class who introduced me (again) to the magic of the clicker and I might add not a moment too soon!


Malamutes are by far one of the most difficult breeds to train in some respects simply because of their highly refined intelligence. They are of the mind that they rule the roost so to speak and they can be extremely stubborn. Their stubborn streak is quite often mistaken, however, for rebellion or dogs that are ‘out of control’. I have found quite the opposite in working with them – they actually welcome control but the catch here is that you, the owner, have to be the one in control – the alpha. Now how to GET to be the alpha and keep your ‘title’ is all about the training.

courtesy elf@en.wikipedia
courtesy elf@en.wikipedia

Whereas labs for example want nothing but to please their owners, a malamute will inevitably seek to go around said owner any and every way possible until he or she has proof as it were that there is a good reason to obey. They are just harder to train. It became evident even after a few weeks of puppy training that Griffin was tiring of the same old/same old commands and you could almost read his mind when issuing commands. We were working primarily with lured behaviors – which means that we were enticing him with food to go into a sit or a down. He would invariably do it but then if asked to repeat the performance, you would see anything from shaking hands to singing to flat out looks of stupidity – as in ‘huh – you talkin’ to me?

Enter the clicker – since we started using this about 3 or so weeks ago, I have seen a marked improvement in his receptiveness to training and for some reason, it takes the food out of the picture – but not really! The clicker is the ticket though in my humble opinion because instead of hurrying to reward the dog with a treat (which is sometimes impossible instantaneously), you have the leisure if you would of clicking (approving) the behavior at the very instant that it occurred (and you do not have to do it unless the criteria are met) – and THEN comes the reward. So there is an element of a wee bit of delayed gratification involved. I think at least in the malamute’s case – that little bit of time for ‘reflection’ is really paying off.

The clicker supposedly has been around for 70+ years or so – at least the concept. However, it was reportedly introduced by a marine biologist and a dog trainer (Karen Pryor and Gary Wilkes and some colleagues) back in the 1980s in the United States. The clicker concept is that it a conditional reinforcer – meaning if you do not perform, you do not get treats. Trainers of all sizes and types use the clicker. There is clicker training for horses and cats as well – and it is the recommended training method for service dogs. There must be something to this training if it can function across so many boards and serve so many so well!

The concept of clicker training is basically this – if you do X, you will get a pay-off and sometimes, you will get a BIG pay-off! However, if you do not do X, you look like an idiot and you get nothing! It actually puts the dog in the position of thinking ‘what does she or he want?’ This is good! This is great! The dog is now focused entirely on getting the pay-off and he or she will usually keep on trying just to make sure that they get it. There is no ambiguity about it – either they do what they need to do or no click – hence no pay-off.


OFFERED – This is where you are waiting for the dog to offer to perform – what they will do to see if they can get a pay-off (treat). Some dogs (malamutes in particular), once they know the ‘game’ as it were, begin offering all kinds of things – it becomes almost comical as in ‘is THIS the one you wanted?’ and they will usually go through their entire repertoire of what they know until they realize that it is only 1 thing you are after –this time!

LURED – This is where you hold a treat in your hand and you ‘show’ a dog by slowly lowering it to the ground for instance (holding it practically on their nose) that you want them to go into a down position. This is effective, especially when starting out, but later on, as training progresses, it is possible to completely eliminate or at least minimize the lure to get what you want. You may have to resort to it for a short bit of time – for instance placing it on an elevated table you want them to get up on – but for the most part, once you have clicked a behavior a few times, it is remembered and there will not be a need for the lure. Treat yes – lure no.

TARGETING – This is the most advanced stage of clicker training – when you teach a dog with a clicker to push a button or grab onto something specifically and repeatedly without fail, to touch something or do something ‘outside the ordinary’ repeatedly and without fail. This is how service dogs are trained. When the command is given for instance for a service dog to go into the kitchen and flip a switch on the coffeemaker, that is how they are trained. That specific button pushing or switch flipping is a TARGETED behavior that has been enhanced over and over by the trainer and then finally done without fail every time - because it was rewarded consistently over time.

SHAPING – This is a behavior that refers to the gradual progression of clicker training that leads up to the ultimate performance of whatever task or trick you want the dog to perform.


You are in fact shaping the dog’s concept of what you want! If for instance you want a dog to get up on a stool (to simulate having an exam at the vet’s and needing to put feet up on something or moving to be examined or groomed) – you cannot expect the dog to just jump up on the stool and know what to do. You first place the stool or table on the floor and stand ready with the clicker and treats (more on that below).

The dog will probably look at you since you have the clicker – you observe the dog and if the dog comes anywhere NEAR the stool – puts a nose to it, bumps it accidentally – you click/give a treat. Now you have their attention even more – ‘ah – there is something she likes about the stool – she wants me to do something – but what?’ In a matter of minutes, Griffin was putting his nose on the stool – click – put a treat on the stool for him to gobble up. After 5-6 of those behaviors, I quit clicking it though because we can go on like this forever and he will not progress.

Now he began to think outside that particular box – ‘man – she wants something else – what is it?’ He bumps the stool with a paw – I click that/treat! He is thinking now – ‘hmmm – okay – it was a paw – what about the paw?’ So he puts 1 paw cautiously on top of the stool and CLICK – BIG wad of treats! ‘Whoa – something about the paw…. Wow – I got mega treats’. Next, he puts his paw completely on top of the stool and click/treat – only rains down a little wad of treats and praise. At this point, he is totally focused on the stool and thinking about what his paw has to do with the treats. You get the idea?

So we move on with this shaping behavior and eventually I got him (all in the same session) from not even knowing what the stool was about to having BOTH paws on the stool, which he was a little worried about doing in the beginning but with the encouragement of clicking and treats, he totally understood that performance equaled treats. The next day, I was able to add ‘move’ and do some body language (stepping almost to him sideways) and when he moved his back feet even a millimeter, click/treat! Pretty soon he figured out that I wanted his 2 front feet to stay steady on the stool while he moved around the stool with only his back feet. I coined the phrase for him with this part of the training as ‘move’.

Going backwards, using the same principles, if you were teaching the dog to sit – you would start with a treat held above the dog’s nose and tipping backwards so that in order to keep the treat in sight, they HAVE to sit. As soon as the butt hits the floor – say ‘sit’ - click/treat. Lure the behavior for a few times and then quit clicking/treating. Give the command orally and keep clicking/treating every time the behavior is accomplished. Finally, you can progress to just a hand signal for the sit and click and treat.


The nice thing about this particular method of training is that there is no getting the dog ready! As long as you have treats and as long as you have a clicker – you’re ready to start. You should accustom the dog to the fact, however, right away that you will be getting a treat if you hear a click. You do not have to make the dog perform to start out. Simply clicking the clicker 1 time and giving a treat 5 or so times in a row should get their attention really quick! They are very astute in figuring out that they hear a noise (the click – once) and they got a treat – what’s up with that? They do not seem to resent that they might have to work harder for it down the road by the way! It is all about the treat!


  • Never click the clicker more than 1 time! And never click the clicker without giving a treat!
  • Do not practice with the clicker while the dog is around – meaning acquainting YOURSELF with the clicker – do it out of hearing of the dog.
  • ALWAYS give a treat if you have clicked – it will negate your training if you click and withhold a treat – even if in error – you can always redo and retrain what you mistakenly clicked for.
  • Remember that whatever point in the situation you clicked – that is the behavior that will be reinforced. So if you wanted a sit and you clicked when the dog was ALMOST sitting – he or she will remember THAT and only do the sit that far. It is important to remember that the point of click needs to be exactly the point in the dog’s behavior that you WANT. So down means down – if they spring back up as soon as they dropped into the down, then no click – no treat. If they down and stay down – then the click comes – then the treat.
  • Whenever you train a dog with the clicker, they should be relatively hungry as they will focus more acutely – malamutes do not seem to have this problem as they are always hungry it seems! If we are doing a long training session, however, we only feed half his dinner meal and then give the rest of his kibble as training treats.
  • Sometimes you need to make the treats more inviting – something they have to have! We do not have that problem but some other puppies do or dogs in general tire of the same treats. You can have different levels as well – as a rule, we only give 1 piece of kibble for every reward/thing done correctly – but if it is something really special or intricate, he gets a reward of more kibbles – or a special chicken treat if we are trying to really reinforce a behavior.
  • If at all possible – keep the clicker in your hand and remain relatively uninvolved – don’t chatter all the way through the training so that the dog focuses on getting the click and only the click – that means he or she is doing the right thing. Don’t pet the dog while training with the clicker or play with them. There is plenty of time for that after!
  • If possible, place the treats in a bowl or on a counter and NOT on your person so that they are focusing on the clicker, not you or the reward. If that doesn’t work, having them in a pouch on your waist or something works – but avoid touching the treats all the time and focus mainly on the behavior and the clicker – you want the dog focusing on the clicker – NOT the food!
  • Pause an instant before offering the treat. When you give the dog the command to sit – as soon as the butt hits the floor – CLICK! Wait an instant and then offer the treat – give them a chance to think for just that second about what they did right.
  • If the dog is not getting what you want, you may need to backtrack and ‘shape’ the behavior (see below). That means that you have moved too quickly to the end result and will need to take it in steps rather than achieving the task all in one training. It is actually preferable to shape many tasks rather than attempting them all at the same time because that way, they are forced to think more and brainstorm as to what to do to get that treat!
  • Always end the session on a high note – a successful and positive completion of a task. If you are having trouble with 1 particular command and cannot get to the click point, then switch to another that you know the dog can do, click/reward, and praise – then end the session. Always better to walk away successful rather than frustrated – for both dog and owner.
  • Similarly, if the dog is balking at a particular command or task – walk away – come back to it – just DO NOT CLICK any part of the task or command if you did not get what you wanted. They won’t remember or hold it against you that you did not click for it. They will just go on to the next thing and revisit that particular thing later
  • Don’t point at the dog with the clicker like it is a remote control! This can either frighten the dog or cause aggression depending on the personality of the dog.
  • Clicker training is NOT voice dependent – you don’t have to get mad – you don’t have to shout – you don’t have to plead with the dog – it is all about the click! ‘You do thisCLICK – you get a treat’ – it could not be simpler. No personalities involved and no emotions.
  • You do not ever have to manhandle your dog! There is no choking to get them to sit or down – there is no shoving their behind down on the ground.
  • ANYONE can do it! Even a child can reinforce commands by holding the clicker and then offering a treat after the performance of the task – of course supervision should always be part of the training if involving a child and treats. The nice thing though is that if I train the dog and then Bob trains the dog – we can’t get into any conflicts over what means what – or how we want it done although you should compare notes and decide – sit means butt on the floor for instance, not ‘intent to place butt on the floor’. As long as you are each clicking for the same performance each and every time and rewarding each and every time, it is a great way for all parties concerned to train the dog!
  • You can use the clicker ANYWHERE! You can be lying on the bed with the dog and watching TV – you want them to offer a paw – in a touch or a shake – they do it – you click – they get a treat. You are walking the dog and you want them on your side or to sit when you stop. You encourage the behavior a few times by offering treats and when they do what you want appropriately, you click EVERY TIME and reward with a treat. Then you keep reinforcing that behavior each time – and all you had to do was carry a few treats and the clicker.
  • For more complicated tasks, you would use shaping behavior.


In summary, there are a million different commands that can be incorporated into clicker training and dog tricks as well like bowing or singing/barking, rolling over, etc! The most important thing is to remember the points as listed above and be consistent with 1 click gets a treat. If you need to reevaluate a portion of the command that you are working on it, do that – go back to the lure behavior and just work it a part at a time – or upgrade the treats. I like this technique mostly because it is totally non stressed and is reliable simply because it is based on a positive reward system. The only time the dog gets a treat is when he or she does what you want! I think it is a win/win situation.


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    • myawn profile image


      9 years ago from Florida

      very good hub I enjoyed reading it My dog was motivated by treats.

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      10 years ago from Washington

      It really is a great method for training - unfortunately for us, our Griffin became so food motivated that he starts doing tricks and 'stuff' before we even tell him to do it! So it must work!!

      Thanks so much for your reinforcing comment and so glad you agree!

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      I like clicker training because the owner can't use the clicker to enforce negative consequences. I'm not against negative consequence when used appropriately, but they are used waaaaay too often and in place of other more appropriate, more effective consequences. The owner must be in control of themselves and think quite a bit more about how he/she utilizes his/her training methods. Sure, it takes more brainpower, but some of you are up to the task and will excel using this method.

      Clicker training is also fun. My dog loves it. She learns tricks faster, and as an awesome side effect of clicker training, she has a happier, more pleasant manner that makes her obedience that much better.

      Not everyone agrees with clicker training, but this training method could work for you. Don't let the Negative Nellies discourage you from at least giving it an honest try. I didn't try it for years because I didn't understand it and no one that I knew used it, so in my mind it wasn't really an option.

      If you try it and don't like it, then that is fine; it is certainly worth a try.

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      10 years ago from Washington

      OMGosh Kblover - you totally get it. That's what I keep trying to preach from the dog pen. Certain breeds are not 'bad' breeds nor are they stubborn. They just have inherent characteristics that we all need to understand and then find a way 'not around but through' to get our relationship. Malamutes are notorious for being labeled as 'bad breeds' and in fact they are so superior in their intelligence. They need a job though and they totally need socialization.

      I have dealt with so many different breeds over the years and find each and every one fascinating. You just have to find their strengths (and their weaknesses too to keep them out of trouble)....and it's golden.

      Isn't it kinda like people though really? Thanks for being a fellow dog psychologist!!! You get it and I love people who truly get the whole picture. That's the thing that saves dogs and saves us humans too. I haven't met a dog yet in my 57 years that I didn't love. I hope to meet many, many more and hope you meet and understand many more. Happy Christmas to you and merry new year!! Griffin and Denaya his mentor had a wonderful day but then so did we all!

    • kblover profile image

      Brian McDowell 

      10 years ago from USA

      Good point and shows that any training method needs to be tailored to the dog you're working with (something I think too many owners forget). I think it's sad that a lot of people think stubborn/independent-minded dogs (I prefer the latter description since those dogs are probably ones that were bred to work independent of man's instructions and more on instinctive abilities/drives) as considered less intelligent. They are less biddable, but biddability and intellect are two different things, and you and your trainer see that and have come up with ways to get inside his mind anyway! That's awesome! I hope you and Griffin have a Merry Christmas!

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      10 years ago from Washington

      kblover - Thanks so much for your insightful comments and sounds like you have a smart dog!! Malamutes are not known for their patience and I think that's why our trainer suggested just the tiniest of pauses. Griffin is also EXTREMELY food motivated and that is what he focuses on. She was trying to get us to work a bit on his brain as in let me just think 1 second WHY I got that treat? Please be assured it was just a zip of a second before he got the treat because he'd have lost interest probably otherwise. We now have moved away from the clicker because we found that he got TOO smart about it and wouldn't 'perform' unless there WERE treats. Malamutes may be stubborn but they aren't stupid by a long shot! He's a great dog though and so glad we spent the time (and continue to) training him. It makes it easier!!!

    • kblover profile image

      Brian McDowell 

      10 years ago from USA

      I'm glad you gave clicker training a try to that it seems to be working for you.

      I *love* shaping. It's about the only way I want to teach anything. I used the offered behaviors as well to get him in the mindset of "keep trying because maybe this time you'll be right" which I think is key to shaping.

      Targeting is advanced? Interesting! "Touch" was the first thing I taught him. From there it was touch this and touch that. Then opening doors. Too bad there's no switches for him to reach (he's a little dog).

      One interesting thing was that you mentioned to pause before treating. I wonder - would a dog learn faster by rapidly doing behavior X -> click -> reward almost instantly, or by behavior X -> click -> wait 2 seconds -> reward? For Wally, I think he gets it faster with the rapid method. I think him being wound up puts a bigger imprint on his brain or something. Emotion is a factor in memory so perhaps that's it.

      Anyway, nice work and an enjoyable read.

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      11 years ago from Washington

      We train ours too from the beginning but malamutes, because they are so big and stubborn sometimes need that little 'extra' oomph I guess. With them, the training is never over - and we also train them to pull - on a sled or a scooter so they have to be able to really think. I figure though at 8-1/2 months, maybe another 6 or so and we should have the Griffin where he needs to be! I don't think I could handle dog shows though he would be a beautiful specimen - I have a feeling I'd spend much of my time rolling around on the ground as I tripped over some unseen thing in the ring!

    • Darlene Sabella profile image

      Darlene Sabella 

      11 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

      Wow, that was a lot of information to digest, my brain is on overload. However, my dogs have always been trained in the first year of their life, and after that you never need to teach them. I talk dog talk and have never ever hand any problems with any dog I have owned. Clickers seem to be to be useful may in dog show pups.


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