Clicker training — what is it and how does it work?

Clicker training — what is it and how does it work?

Clicker training is a training method emphasizing positive reinforcement and operant conditioning. The idea is to use a distinct and consistent signal (a click or a short word) to mark a desired behavior. This signal is then followed by a reward, usually a small treat. The click pinpoints the behavior exactly. This allows your dog to quickly realize what it is that you want them to do and then they do it quickly and enthusiastically! Punishments are not used when clicker training. On contrary, making mistakes gives the dog beneficial information: when I do this, I will not get a reward.

As a trainer, your job is to observe your dog’s behavior and stay on the background. When your dog even tries to do what you are asking them, reward them with a click and a treat. There are special clickers available for trainers but some dogs might be afraid of their noise. Instead of a clicker, you can use a short, simple word, such as “yes!” Because timing is essential in clicker training, it’s important to keep the word short. It can also be a nonsense word, as “the click” itself means nothing to the dog. What motivates them is the reward they know they’ll get when hearing the click. So, even if you click by accident, always give your dog a treat!

The more quicker and consistent you are at rewarding, the better your dog will learn what you want them to learn. Dogs are really good at learning causation, but sometimes they misunderstand. This is why, when teaching your dog more complex behaviors, you should focus on one piece at a time. When chaining the pieces together, make sure to reward your dog so quickly that is has no chance to do anything but what you asked them to do.

As an example: you want to teach your dog to come to your “side” and “sit down”. After coming to your side but before sitting down, your dog manages to look at other dogs, sniff the ground and give you their paw. If you then reward them, you’ll be rewarding them for all this behavior, not just for sitting down. Remember it’s always easier to prevent your dog from doing something beforehand. Building a series of individual actions takes a bit more time but is very rewarding for both of you.

Especially in the beginning, you want to go easy with your dog. This way the “clicks” and rewards will come quickly and frequently, making the learning process more motivating for your dog. Puppies usually learn quickly and easily, but older dogs can get enthusiastic about clicker training as well. Your dog loves to spend time with you and learn new things but remember to take frequent breaks. A training session can last for a few minutes, after which you can keep a short break, before continuing.

The web is full of resources, articles and videos about clicker training. Make use of them but more importantly, just do it. Good luck!

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