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What Is Clicker Training for Dogs?

Updated on January 7, 2018

In my opinion, clicker training is the ultimate refinement of positive reinforcement training. Clicker training is suitable for any type of training including conformation handling, obedience, agility, search and rescue, tricks, field work, nail trimming, etc. Attention to the handler is an integral part of training and happens automatically with no extra effort. Animals do not know they are "working" and training becomes a game. Appropriate for all dogs, clicker training is especially suitable for dogs with a "Make it worth my while" attitude, dogs that are emotionally sensitive, and dogs of breeds with a reputation for being difficult to train. Clicker training is also suitable for training cats, ferrets, horses, llamas, goats--in short, any animal that interacts with humans.

Formally known as operant conditioning, clicker training was developed by Karen Pryor, a former trainer of dolphins and other marine mammals. Operant conditioning involves pairing a sound with a reinforcement--typically a click and a treat when training dogs, a whistle and a fish when training marine mammals--and using that connection to modify behavior. A dog typically learns in just a few minutes that "click" means "a treat will follow." When the click is paired with a behavior, the final definition of click becomes "that behavior is wonderful, a treat will follow." Dogs quickly learn to repeat a behavior that is reinforced. Any sound, including a single-syllable word spoken crisply and without emotion, can be used instead of a click. (This approach is particularly useful for conformation handling, working with dogs who are very sensitive to the sound of a clicker, nail trimming, and other situations in which a hand is not free to hold a clicker.) Anything the dog enjoys can be used as the reinforcement, including the opportunity to retrieve a toy or play tug-o-war. Treats are used most often because training sessions flow more smoothly when treats are used than when a game is used as the reinforcement.

Desired behaviors are shaped in a progressive step-by-step fashion and progress is generally quite rapid. When shaping a new behavior, the dog's first subtle move toward the end behavior earns a Click and Treat (C&T). As the dog understands what behavior was reinforced, the handler waits to reinforce a behavior that is one step closer to the final behavior. The biggest challenge for clicker trainers is accurately reading the dog and deciding when to wait for the dog to "shift" and offer the next level of the behavior. Fortunately, clicker training is a very forgiving technique; mistakes in timing the click and in deciding when to wait to reinforce the next level of behavior simply mean it will take a bit longer for the dog to learn the final behavior. The dog is still having fun!

As an example of shaping a behavior, consider the formal obedience exercise heeling. When heeling, the dog walks by the handler's left side with his or her ear even with the handler's left hip, at a distance of one hand's width from the handler. The dog is to maintain this position through turns and changes of pace, and to sit squarely when the handler halts without a verbal "Sit" cue. (Sit is shaped as a separate behavior so this example will consider only moving in heel position.) The progression of behaviors to be reinforced would be similar to the following:

  • follow the handler, on either side of or behind the handler
  • follow the handler on the left side
  • follow the handler on the left side, but stay one hand's width from the handler's leg
  • stay even with the handler's left leg (dog may be close or some distance away)
  • maintain this position when speeding up
  • maintain this position when slowing down
  • maintain this position when turning right
  • maintain this position when turning left
  • maintain this position when doing an about turn
  • maintain this position in any location, regardless of distractions

Each step is shaped separately and the final behavior, putting all the components together simultaneously, is not expected until each component has been learned. As you can see, just moving in heel position is a very complex behavior!

By its very nature clicker training creates a dialog between the dog and handler, with the dog spontaneously offering new behaviors and the handler reinforcing those behaviors deemed desirable. As a training technique that strengthens the bond between dog and human, clicker training is unsurpassed.


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