All About Clicker Training
This blog post will cover:
- The science behind clicker training
- Why you should clicker train your dog
- What you need to start clicker training
- How to clicker train your dog
- A video to provide you a visual of how to clicker train, and show you how you can use clicker training to teach your dog handy tricks.
Bear with me, I am going to try to explain this in the most concise way I can but this first section is going to be dry… If you aren’t interested in the psychology of clicker training, you can skip this section. If you’d like to learn more about why it works, read on!
The science behind clicker training
Clicker training involves using a clicker to “mark” the desired behaviour. But how does your pet know that a click means “good job”?
Clicker training is rooted in some fundamental conditioning principals of Psychology. Conditioning is a term that essentially means learning. Through the process of classical conditioning (look up Pavlov’s dogs), the clicker is first associated with a reward. This is done by pairing the click (neutral stimulus) with a treat (primary reinforcer/unconditioned stimulus) multiple times. This establishes that the auditory stimulus of the click is a reliable predictor of the primary reinforcer (food/treats), which conditions the animal to recognise the auditory stimulus of the click (now a conditioned stimulus) as a reinforcer in itself by producing the same response.
Clicker training then carries across into the principals of operant conditioning - the clicker can now be seen as a conditioned reinforcer. Essentially the dog’s neural pathways have formed a connection between food and the sound of the clicker, so that the sound of the clicker can also stimulate the reward pathways of the brain and a positive emotional response in a similar way that food does.
This allows us to expand how we use the clicker. Not only can it be used as a marker followed immediately by a reward, but can also be used as a bridging stimulus, so - say you are working your dog at a distance and are unable to reward him or her directly. You can click to mark the correct behaviour, and keep working the dog, marking the correct behaviours which encourages the dog to keep working, then reward at the end when practical to do so.
So, clicker training is a great tool that can be used for shaping all sorts of behaviours and tricks. Clicker training cats is also possible - Maasi has learnt to sit and fist bump through clicker training. It is also the method trainers at zoos use to train animals to perform for visitors.
Why should I clicker train my dog?
I am a firm believer that clicker training should be considered a foundation tool for dog training. It aids in training your dog as quickly and effectively as possible and is a something you can return to using when difficulties come up in teaching your dog new things.
Although Misia and I communicate well together and she has a good grasp of commands, when learning complex tricks or behaviours I will always return to using a clicker. It gets us to the final result faster, every time.
Here are a few of the main reasons why I am such a strong advocate for clicker training:
- Clear communication - by using a clicker, you are providing a clear and concise way of communicating to your dog “yes, good job”. This is particularly useful for people who tend to talk to their dog a lot as a habit (I am guilty of this myself) as dogs are likely to become frustrated and then lose interest when they aren’t able to understand what you want.
- A unique, attention grabbing stimulus - as an artificial sound, not commonly heard in day-to-day activities, a clicker is more likely to captivate your dog’s attention. This is a great tool to use under distraction, and in places that may be noisy. Competing noises may muffle out your “yes” or “good dog”, but a click is sure to stand out.
- Improved timing - In dog training, timing is everything. Your thumb will usually be quicker than your mouth, so by using a clicker over verbal markers you can improve the precision of your timing. Further to this, good timing is also a part of clear communication; if you are marking at the wrong time, your dog may inadvertently learn incorrect or undesirable behaviours.
- It takes the emotion out of it - we have all been there, getting a bit frustrated with our four legged friend for not getting what we think is a simple task. Well, when you’re using your voice you are likely to be conveying this frustration to your dog which can make them shut down, become stressed or shy away from trying. You want to make sure training is always fun and encourage them to give it a go.
So, what do you need for clicker training?
- A clicker - this is a small handheld device that you press to produce a short, distinctive click sound. Make sure you get one with a wrist strap as minimum, although my personal favourite is the Ezydog Command Training Clicker https://ezydog.com.au/command-training-clicker/ which is truly hands free - it just fits over your finger with an easy to use ergonomic design.
High value treats - the more value your dog places in the treat you use, the faster it will build the associations necessary to learn new skills and the harder they will try to do so! In the video below I am using Educ treats. These do the job for Misia, and she already understands the clicker. When she was first learning what it meant, I was using bits of sausage and cheese to really drive the point that “click” = amazing things are coming.
- A pocket, pouch or anywhere else safe to hide your treats - They need to be easy to access for you, but not so accessible for your pup. In the video, I just put them in my lap and have a hand full of treats which I dispense one at a time. But I have also sat on the couch and had a container of treats behind me, with Misia in front on the floor which has worked well also.
How do I clicker train my dog?
Clicker training dogs is easy. I have provided a visual run down of how to do this in the video before, but the steps are essentially as follows:
- Sit with or be near your dog, have your clicker ready in one hand, and treats in the other.
- Hold up a treat to get your dog’s attention, and pair the clicker and treat stimuli by simply clicking and immediately give your dog the treat.
- Repeat this action a number of times. The aim of this is to get your dog to build an association between the ‘click’ and a tasty reward.
- Keep sessions brief, and repeat. You only need to do this for a couple of minutes at a time, over a few sessions. You will know your dog has grasped the meaning when a “click” grabs their attention straight away.
- Use it to train your dog. Once your dog the process of pairing is complete, the clicker can be used to train obedience, for trick training or shaping behaviour. The sky is the limit.
Now, if you watch the video below I will give you a visual on how to start clicker training and how I use clicker training with Misia to get her to help with the laundry.