Clicker Training Basics | 7 Insanely Actionable Steps
Keen to learn clicker training?
We here at Wiley Pup want you to have all of the resources you need to make the most of your relationship with your dog. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the dog/human bond is having a basic understanding of how canines learn so that you can communicate with them and help them achieve their deep desire to please.
Clicker training for dogs is easy to learn, and yet, it is an extremely powerful method that focuses on reward as a means to encourage the behavior you want, as well as put it on command. While you can spend years mastering and refining your techniques, the basics take just minutes to learn.
A study found there was a decrease of over 1/3 in training time and number of required reinforcements for the clicker as compared to a verbally conditioned group of canines.
An added bonus?
Using a clicker to train your pup is just plain fun for you and your canine companion! This guide will get you started with the fundamentals. In no time you can be teaching your buddy fancy tricks or polite manners.
The Training Revolution
Clicker training dogs works on the principles of operant conditioning, a theory of learning developed most famously by researcher B.F. Skinner in the mid-1900’s. It has been refined by scholars in the behaviorist vein of psychology ever since.
The method became more widely known as a means to train animals as a result of the many marine animal shows that became popular in the 1960’s. The trainers used whistles to mark behavior, and fish as rewards, to train dolphins and other ocean mammals to do spectacular tricks for live audiences.
It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the technique took off in dog training, thanks in large part to animal behaviorists such as Karen Pryor, Gary Wilkes, Ian Dunbar and many others who brought the techniques to the dog world through books and training seminars.
Did you know?
Few people in dog sports such as agility, flyball or scent trials use any other technique these days. A revolution in training canines away from the dominance model towards methods that focus on controlling access to rewards has happened. The so-called “dominance” methods are no longer taken seriously by the vast majority of professional dog trainers despite the unfortunate continued popularity of that narrative among non-professionals.
Positive training methods:
- Are more humane
- Are more enjoyable
- Build a bond of trust between handler and dog
- Are easy to learn
- Foster confidence in your canine
- Are much more effective than dominance based methods
The cherry on top...
Clicker trained dogs achieved behavior acquisition in significantly fewer minutes and required significantly fewer primary reinforcements than verbally conditioned dogs, this has meant that the method is often used for crucial dog training needs such as service dog training.
Must Have Clicker Tools!
A clicker is an inexpensive piece of equipment that is vital to this kind of training. You do not need anything too fancy here, however, we recommend one with a loop and clip so that you can have options for attaching it to your wrist to free up a hand if necessary.
You may have noticed that many professional trainers dispense rewards from a small fanny pack style treat pouch. This is a fairly critical piece of equipment for clicker training dogs because it frees up your hands while giving you a convenient way to get to the treats quickly.
We love this one by Paw Lifestyles because it is reasonably priced, well built, and has several bonus features that come in handy.
PRO TIP: Line your bag with a plastic Ziploc to keep it clean!
A motivator simply means something that your dog already loves. It can be anything from a toss of a ball, a tug on a rope, or praise and a pet. One of the keys to training dogs across the board is to identify what motivates them and use that knowledge to shape their behavior.
While you can always use any motivator to reinforce certain behavior, you will find that most professional trainers use high value food rewards with the clicker. The reason for this is that food can be dispensed very quickly, without having to pause or disrupt the flow of training. More on this later in the article.
High Value Food Rewards
Here's the deal...
The most common “motivator” used in animal training is food. When trainers talk about “high value” food rewards, what they mean is something that your pup really enjoys, enough that they will be extra motivated. In recent years, dog food manufacturers have designed a wide variety of small treats just for this purpose.
Commercially made treats can become expensive if you train daily. Another option is to cut up some cooked chicken, hot dogs, cheese or other canine friendly food into tiny bits (about the size of a pea). You can even mix these high value treats with regular kibble in your treat pouch to cut cost and calories without sacrificing motivation.
If you are worried about your pal’s weight, consider using the kibble they are already eating instead of feeding extra treats. That is, have them “work” for one of their meals that they would normally just eat out of the dish. Again, adding something special to the mix, even in a small amount, will boost the motivation value.
The bottom line...
Don’t worry about always having to have treats to get desired behavior. The end goal is to ultimately fade the use of food rewards once they have learned a new behavior. We will show you how to do this later in the article.
Clicker Training Dogs | The Basics (Keeping It Simple)
Clicker training for puppies and canines works by associating a positive outcome with a desired behavior. When any behavior is rewarded, it will increase in frequency. The purpose of the clicker is simply to mark the EXACT behavior that you want to reward.
In a nutshell...
It is the precise “click” sound that says to your dog: “That thing you are doing right this instant is earning a reward.” Using a clicker in this way allows you to mark behavior you want to reward from a distance, or in between other behaviors.
The bottom line...
The “click” allows you to reward exactly what you want to reward.
If you are a beginner, don’t worry, so is your pup! Give yourself some time to get the hang of it. It won’t take long before your find your confidence, and so will your dog! Once that light goes off in their head, you will see that they understand what is going on and the power of positive reinforcement training will be unlocked.
Ok I know what you're thinking, this could be hard! But it's honestly not. Follow these steps and you'll succeed:
1. Charge the Clicker
The first step is simply to “charge” the clicker. This means that you are starting to associate the sound of the click with a reward.
With your treat pouch on and stocked, click then immediately give your dog a treat. Do this a dozen times or so, just to get that first association going without any other distractions.
You can either hand your pal a small treat, or toss it nearby. The specific context of the behavior you are training will determine if a hand feed or a toss makes more sense. Neither is wrong.
Pro Tip: Always give your companion a treat when you click, even if you click by accident or mess up the timing.
2. Start with Something Your Dog Already Knows
If your dog already knows a trick, such as sit, then you have another chance to deeply reinforce the click/treat pair. Ask for the sit, and as soon as your buddy gives it to you, click/treat. This is a way to let your dog know that the clicker game is about: “Do This, Get That.”
If your canine companion is totally green to training, or you are working with a young puppy, then they may not know anything on command. That is fine, just move on to teaching that first trick.
Pro Tip: It is important that you only ask for a behavior verbally once. Be patient and wait 5-10 seconds for them to give you the behavior, and if not just turn your back, walk a few steps away, then move on to something else. If you repeatedly say the command over and over and your dog persistently ignores it, you are just un-training the command.
3. Set a Criteria
In dog training circles “criteria” simply means whatever behavior you are going to click/treat. It is important to note that you set the criteria.
As you work on training a given behavior, your criteria will change. First you start with something that is going in the direction of what you want, and over time you raise the criteria towards the final behavior you desire.
Pro Tip: You want to reward your dog at a rate of every 2-5 seconds. This will keep them engaged and hold their focus. Your criteria should be set with this in mind. If you raise the criteria too fast you will find you won’t be able to reward at this rate, so at that point you have to lower the criteria to get back in the sweet spot.
4. Luring, Capturing & Shaping
So, you get the basic idea. When your dog does what you want, you click then treat. Easy peasy.
Wait…how do you solicit the behavior you want? Well there are three basic ways you can do this.
You can use a high value reward to essentially bribe your dog into a position, through an obstacle, or towards a target. Hold the food reward in your hand and move slow enough that your dog follows closely with their nose. Once you have them through the movement, click and let them have the bait.
The key to using this technique is to “fade the lure” as soon as you can. This means after you have lured the behavior a few times, just use your hand WITHOUT the treat in it to lure the behavior.
Once that is working, immediately start to abbreviate the motion you are making with your hand until it is just enough for your dog to be prompted to the behavior.
If you do this right, you will end up with a very small hand motion that will be your dog’s cue to give you a certain behavior. For example, when teaching “Spin” you will start by running your hand with a lure all the way around your dog’s body. If you fade well, you will eventually be able to cue the behavior with nothing more than your index finger making a small circle.
Try to fade the lure in a single session. You can work on refining your dog’s movement later with shaping (covered later in this article). Make it a priority to get to an abbreviated hand motion in that first session if possible.
Pro Tip: Train your dog using hand signals. Only add a verbal command to a trick once it is exactly where you want it to be and you are getting it from your dog 90% of the time you give the hand signal.
Here is a quick video to show you how to use a lure, and most importantly, how to quickly fade the lure.
Capturing is another popular basic training technique. It involves noticing and rewarding a behavior your dog volunteers. It takes a little more practice and timing than luring. However, it is really, really fun once you get the hang of it.
If you follow the instructions in this article for training, keeping training sessions positive and full of rewards, you will likely find you have a dog that can’t wait to train with you. Moreover, they will be so confident that they will sometimes volunteer behaviors just to see if it lands them a treat.
This is an ideal situation for capturing because now you have a dog willing to do just about anything to get your attention. All you really have to do at this point is sit there and wait for your dog to do something that is a baby step towards some ultimate behavior you want, and click treat it.
Once your dog volunteers something towards what you ultimately want, you are ready to refine it with the next technique: shaping.
Pro Tip: Use the idea of capturing in between training sessions to encourage behavior that you like. For instance, if you notice your dog lying in his bed all on his own then you may want to randomly click/treat that behavior to assure that you will get more of it.
Here is a great video on how to use the capture method:
Shaping is the process of refining a behavior from an early version to the final version. Whether you use luring or capturing to get those first attempts at a new trick, you will use shaping to finish training the trick.
This is where we come back to the idea of criteria. Remember it is up to you to set the criteria that results in a click/treat every 2-5 seconds. In other words, you have to set the criteria that lays your dog up for success. If your dog is not meeting the criteria, it is you that is making a mistake…not the dog.
Shaping requires that you are very clear about your criteria, and that you develop a feel for when you can raise the criteria – something that is going to differ from dog to dog. Don’t be discouraged, and remember, even if you mess up the timing on a click, you still have to doll out that reward.
Pro Tip: Shaping takes time to learn for you and your dog. However, I promise you, keep practicing and a lightbulb is going to go off for you and your pooch. Once dogs learn how shaping works, they can be trained extraordinary tricks in very little time. Once they understand the basics, it is a skillset they will have for life.
Here is a quick video demonstrating how shaping works. Notice how the handler is accepting any little movement in the direction of a “Go Under,” which at first is very subtle. With selective raising of the criteria, this dog confidently offers “Go Under” in a single session.
4. Ignore All Other Behavior
It is critical that you keep training sessions focused on positive reinforcement, in other words, rewards for the behavior you like.
Many people think training also has to include plenty of punishment and scolding if the dog is doing something other than what you wanted. This is absolutely false.
In fact, punishment during a training session is very likely to simply make your dog associate learning with negative things and risk. They are likely to try to avoid potential conflict by moving their focus away from you (deflecting)…the exact opposite of what you want!
When you reward behavior, as long as it is clear to your dog what you are rewarding (thanks clicker!), you will get more of it. Rest assured that eventually the behavior you ignore will eventually be crowded out by the behavior that you have rewarded. Bonus: you will have a dog that is confident and excited to learn who totally trusts you to lead the way.
Pro Tip: If you are getting really undesirable behavior during training then you can always end the training session and try again later. A phrase like “Too Bad” said with a “whatever” tone right before you walk away and ignore your dog will work nicely. The phrase “Too Bad” will eventually be a marker that lets your dog know “Okay, whatever I was doing when she said that ended my fun. I better not do that anymore!”
5. Keep Training Sessions Short and Fun
The length of the ideal training session will vary by breed and age. Young puppies rarely have focus for more than 5 minutes, so in those cases many short training sessions a day is perfect.
Herding, Sporting and Working dogs tend to be able to focus for much longer periods of time, even up to an hour or more.
Watch your dog for signs of fatigue, boredom, or frustration and notice if they become easily distracted. Make a note of the time you have been working this session and cut your next session at least 5 minutes short of that time.
Training should be a fun time for you and your canine. Think of the entire process like a game you are playing and break up training with some quick games of ball or tug to keep things interesting. Boredom is the enemy of learning for dogs and humans.
Pro Tip: Always leave your dog wanting more by ending a training session BEFORE they want to quit.
6. Adding Distance, Duration and Distraction
You should always train new behavior in an environment that is familiar to your dog. This will keep the focus on what you are trying to train.
However, once you have added the verbal cue because your dog is reliably giving you the behavior exactly the way you want it, you are ready to start increasing the challenge.
Dog trainers call it the three D’s:
- Distance: Gradually increase the distance that your dog is from you when working on reinforcing a known behavior. Eventually you should be able to ask for what you want while several meters (or more) from your dog.
- Duration: When you first train a behavior, your criteria may be set at less than a second. Imagine that first “Sit” – that butt might hit the ground for an instant but if that is your starting criteria, it will get a click/treat. Once your dog is reliably touching the floor with their butt, you can raise the criteria to having that bottom on the ground for a second or two before rewarding. Gradually extend duration in this way.
Note that adding duration means that your dog may get several click/treats for a single sit, slowing (but rather randomly) increasing the duration between clicks.
- Distraction: It does not do you much good to get the right behavior if it you only get it in the living room. Make sure that you run your dog through the behaviors they know in a variety of locations: the pet store, the parking lot, the yard, the dog park, etc.
Adding distraction so that your dog reliably gives you a behavior in any situation is called “proofing.”
7. Transitioning Away from Food Rewards
What many people do not realize about dog clicker training is that the ultimate goal is to be able to get certain behaviors from your dog reliably without having to have a clicker and a treat bag in your hand. It is important to learn how to transition away from dependence on the clicker system once a behavior is learned and you have added distance, duration and distraction.
There are a few different techniques that can help you transition away from rapid food reward:
1. Chaining: This is simply asking for multiple learned behaviors in a row before rewarding. It is important that you use this method only with tricks that you have totally on command. In other words, your dog already knows all of these tricks very well.
By asking for multiple tricks in a row, you are also randomizing when your dog gets a reward. They might get rewarded after 2 tricks, maybe after 10 tricks, etc. This randomizing of rewards for known tricks is a powerful means of reinforcing the behavior while you work away from constant rapid rewards used during training. Keep this in mind:
Train new behavior with rapid food reward.
Reinforce already learned behavior with random rewards.
Behavior chains can get quite long. Watch an agility trial and notice how the handler does not stop the dog in the middle of the course to give them a food reward. That being said, you can rest assured that the dog got plenty of rapid food reward along the way as they learned how to navigate each obstacle.
2. Substitute Non-food Motivators: As we explored earlier, food is not the only motivator for your dog. This is where things like tug, a belly rub, a toss of the ball or other non-food motivators come into play. Once your dog really knows a behavior, they do not need the rapid reward that food provides during training. So, this means you can start to use these other rewards to keep your dog sharp on the behaviors they already know.
3. Return to a food reward refresher from time to time. This helps keep your dog sharp on behaviors that you have trained. There is no harm in practicing well known behaviors with a rapid reward in the context of a training session. This will only help your dog stay confident in a training session as well as keep them sure about commands they learned long ago.
Final Say | And A Few Reminders
We hope this article has given you clicker training basics in a way that motivates you to go ahead and give it a try. With a little practice you will find that you are able to train the behaviors you want in no time. Your dog will eventually learn how the clicker training game works. When that light goes off in their head, you will be amazed how quickly they learn and how much they enjoy time spent learning from you.
Before we go, here are a few reminders to optimize your success:
- Keep it fun.
- Quit before they are tired or frustrated.
- Never use punishment during a training session.
- Use high value food rewards for maximum motivation.
- Set your criteria so you are rewarding every 2-5 seconds.
- Focus on your timing until you have mastered the click.
- Reward the click every single time, even if you messed up the timing.
- Add distance, duration and distraction AFTER they have mastered the command.
- Start with hand signals and add the verbal cue only after they are giving you the behavior you want reliably.
- Use verbal commands once, wait for the behavior, and move on to something else if they don’t give it. Never repeat verbal cues.
- Keep it fun!! (Worth repeating.) It is better to not train today than for you to force a training session when you are agitated or frustrated. If it is not fun for you, it isn’t fun for them.
Sharon Elber (M.S. in Science & Technology) - Professional Dog Trainer
Sharon is a professional dog trainer with over 10 years experience. She is also a professional writer that received her M.S. in Science & Technology Studies from Virginia Tech.
For more info on Sharon click here