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Clicker Training Basics: How to Train Your Dog Using a Clicker

Updated on December 17, 2020
Morgan Rand profile image

Owner of Happy Pets Inc, Morgan has a degree in Exotic Animal Training & a passion for improving the lives of pets through training.

Are you interested in learning positive training techniques and improving your relationship with your dog? Clicker training is a fun and effective way to train behaviors you would like your dog to do and to get rid of behaviors that you don’t like. In this article we’ll be focusing on dog clicker training, but pretty much any food-motivated animal can be clicker trained! To get started, pick up a clicker and a treat bag at your local pet store or on Amazon.

Clicker Training Basics

The concept of clicker training is based on operant conditioning (Pavlov’s dog) and is very simple: every time your dog does a behavior you like, you click and give them a treat. The “click” sound marks the behavior, communicating to them that they’ve done something you like and that means a treat is coming. From basic behaviors to complex tricks, clicker training is a great way to use force-free training techniques and build up strong behaviors.

Why Use a Clicker?

The question is often asked: Do I really need to use a clicker? Can’t I just say “good” instead? Yes, you can use that approach as well, but the clicker is a more effective way to precisely mark a particular behavior. The sound of the clicker is always the same, as opposed to your voice saying “good”, which can vary in its enthusiasm level, pitch, etc. The consistency of the clicker noise makes it more accurate for training.

Click = Reward

The clicker’s purpose is to bridge the gap between your dog’s behavior and the delivery of the reward, letting them know “good job, your reward is coming!” So how do you let your dog know this? Just start pairing a click with some form of food. Don’t ask for any behavior: when their attention is focused on you, simply click ONCE and immediately give them a treat. Continue this for multiple sessions. If you click and they come running, you know they’ve got it!

Do I Have to Use Treats As a Reward?

Clicker training does not necessarily require the use of treats. If your dog LOVES their everyday kibble, try using that in your training sessions. The reward needs be a high value food that is small and easy to give to them quickly. Try experimenting with different types of their favorite foods until you figure out what seems to motivate them the most.

Will I Have to Use a Clicker Forever?

No, you won’t have to use the clicker forever. The more a behavior is repeated and rewarded, the stronger that behavior will become. Eventually, once you’ve gotten a behavior trained solid, you won’t have to click anymore and won’t need to always reward with food. You’ll be able to start mixing up your reinforcement and use verbal praise and petting to reward trained behaviors. If the behavior starts to break down, then you’ll know it needs more primary reinforcement, which is food. In the beginning though, it’s most effective to consistently reinforce with food.

Pro Tip: Keep Training Sessions Short

It’s extremely important to keep the length of your training sessions short and positive. Although you may be excited about making progress, pushing your dog to the point of being frustrated will not be productive. You always want to end on a positive note so that your dog remembers training as something fun and rewarding, so make sure to stop the session when things are going well!

Timing is Everything

One very important part of clicker training is the timing of your click. When you’re trying to communicate that you want your dog to do a certain behavior, you have to mark that behavior with a click at the exact moment your dog is doing it. If the click is delayed it can be confusing to your dog and they may not be able to figure out what behavior gets them the treat.

Train a Hand Target

A good place to start when using clicker training is to teach your dog to hand target. Targeting is when your dog puts their nose to your hand when asked to “target” or “touch” (depending on which word you prefer to use). Teaching your dog to hand target is a great tool that you can use to maneuver your dog without the use of force or coaxing. It can also be used to train more advanced behaviors later on.

To train this, put your hand in various places around your dog’s head without touching them. Have the clicker in one hand and stick out your other hand towards your dog: click and reward each time you stick your hand out. Placing your hand above their head will inevitably lead to them touching your hand with their nose. After a couple repetitions of them touching your hand, start to slowly increase the distance of your hand from their nose, waiting for them to touch your hand and then click and reward. Break this up into short training sessions, continuing to increase the distance as your dog gets the hang of it. Throw the treat a couple feet away from you so that when you stick out your hand they will have to travel further to come back to you each time. When it’s clear they are understanding that your hand out means for them to touch their nose to it, pair the behavior with a verbal cue, like saying “touch”, every time you put your hand out.

The use of this target can be applied to many different situations. If your dog is nervous or distracted and you want them to focus on you, ask them to target. You can also use it as a calm approach to introducing your dog to new people by having them ask your dog to target.

Capturing a Behavior

So how do you train other behaviors with a clicker? One of the best ways is to “capture a behavior”, or catch your dog in the act of a behavior you want them to do, and then put that behavior on cue. You’ll find your dog will get excited about training and will start offering various behaviors in order to get rewarded. Make sure to click and reward an offered behavior that you like, and keep repeating until you get it on cue.

What Behaviors Should I Train?

One important behavior to train is “go to your bed” (or any other spot you would like for them to go and lie down). If the doorbell rings and your dog has the habit of barking, getting very excited or jumping up on new people, the “go to your bed” command can eliminate all of these behaviors at once. This vital behavior rewards your dog for being calm and teaches them to stay in one spot, which can be utilized in so many different situations. Next, think of other behaviors to train based on what you would like your dog to do or NOT do to, as will be explained in the next section.

What About Punishment?

With positive reinforcement training, punishment becomes unnecessary because the key to getting rid of unwanted behaviors is to train an incompatible behavior. This means ask your dog do a behavior that is physically impossible for them to do at the same time as the unwanted behavior, for example having them “sit” when they’re jumping. Instead of punishing the behavior you don’t like, think of a behavior you want them to do instead and put it on cue.

Now Go Give It a Try!

The amount of behaviors you can train with a clicker is endless! Once you and your dog get the hang of it, you’ll be surprised how much easier it is to communicate with your dog and how much better your relationship will be.

© 2020 Morgan Rand

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