Young Miniature Poodle undergoing clicker training.

Clicker Training 101: Clicking to Succeed

The best way to train your puppy is by rewarding good behavior and discouraging naughty behavior.

Clicker training is a fantastic, science-based process to effectively communicate with your dog. It's easy to learn and puppies respond very well to it.

Clickers have been around for a long time, they're the one training aid that almost everyone's heard about. They are a small device which releases a distinct sound, which when used at the right time, signals your puppy that a desired behavior has occurred.

Essentially, the clicker gets used to point out good behavior, it educates your dog that he's been a good pup and a reward is about to follow. As an example, if you're training your puppy not to nip, with a closed fist containing a treat and bringing it close to his face, you'd click the clicker at the exact moment he shows restraint by not nipping. He would then promptly receive his treat.

You may be wondering why someone would want to use a clicker, instead of just using a verbal marker like "Yes!"

The answer is because using a clicker is a lot more precise and consistent.

Take into account that the tone of your voice is not always constant, with fluctuations in pitch occurring frequently. Also bear in mind that your dog will hear your voice in many different situations, while only hearing the sound of a clicker while training is in session. Lastly, a click can be produced at the very moment a wanted behavior occurs, using a word like "Yes!" to the same effect is somewhat more difficult.

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Charging your Clicker

The first step to effectively clicker train your dog is to teach him to associate the clicking sound with getting a reward. This is know as charging the clicker. It's a simple process of click and treat! In other words, click the clicker and immediately treat your dog.

Since you're not currently rewarding for any single action or behavior, it doesn't matter what your dog is doing at the time, just as long as he's not misbehaving. In essence, you're simply letting your dog know that every click is subsequently followed by a treat. Repeat this process several times.

Before long your pup will start associating the clicker sound with receiving a tasty treat. With a little practice, as the clicker goes off you'll start to notice him intuitively turn his head in search for the treat.

Now it's time to aim for a consistent association of the click-to-treat.

Once this is achieved you can begin to use a clicker to train your dog for specific actions you want him to take by introducing cues (also known as commands). Basically, a cue invites your puppy to perform a specific behavior. A marker, aka the click, lets him know he's done it, and a reward reinforces the behavior.

Behavior Capture Using a Clicker

Behavior capture (or "capturing" for short) is a basic training method which works very well with the use of a clicker.

Capturing refers to the act of marking (clicking) and treating a natural and spontaneous behavior as it happens. For example, say you wanted to train your dog to sit, with a clicker and treats at hand you'd click and treat every time he goes to sit. Further down the line you would introduce the verbal cue "sit" at the same time as he goes to sit, immediately followed by a click and treat.

Once you do this enough, your clever pup will respond positively whenever you command him to sit.

Now, say you wanted to teach your dog to lie down on command. With a chair ready, you could use capturing to do this by leashing him next to you as you're both standing, then you'd take a seat.

Eventually your pup will tire and go to lie down, at which point you would click and treat. You would repeat this process a number of times, always remembering to keep a vigilant eye out for the very moment he goes to lie down so you can click and give him his treat.

Like before, after some repetition you can start introducing a verbal cue such as “lie down” as he goes to lie down, at which point you would then immediately click and treat.

Do this enough and your puppy will soon start to understand what's expected of him in order to receive his reward, at which point you can begin to practice the “down” command off the leash and in different areas. Continue to click and then treat on every successful attempt.

Miniature Poodle going through clicker training.

Behavior Shaping Using a Clicker

Shaping is a training process used to progressively train your dog through a more complex behavior or action. It's done by splitting things into smaller steps, gradually building up to the final desired outcome.

Shaping is great for engaging your dogs brain, as well as expanding his capabilities, and it's also great for advancing your own skills in training.

To give you an example of shaping, let's say you wanted to teach your dog to go to his crate and lie down inside. Your first step would be to click and then treat just for looking at his crate, then for approaching his crate, then for getting in his crate, and finally for lying down.

As you can see, shaping requires a step-by-step approach, constantly increasing the goal for success until you reach the final desired outcome.

Taking the crate example above into account, after you'd reward your dog for looking at the crate, you would stop clicking and rewarding for this step, and begin to click and treat for approaching the crate, and so on.

With shaping it's important to have a plan in place, such as a list of all the steps required to reach the final desired behavior or action. Always remember to be patient with your dog and keep training sessions short. If at any point your dog seems confused, take a few steps back to give him some space.

Timing is Crucial

Whenever it comes to any form of animal training, timing is extremely important, even more so when we're talking about clicker training, and shaping especially.

You always want to be clicking at the very moment a wanted behavior or action happens. Being late with the click will result in confusion and you may end up building some very random behaviors.

You can practice improving your clicker timing skills by playing a simple game with yourself, such as bouncing a ball off a wall, clicking every time it hits the wall. It's simple yet very effective.

Dropping the Clicker

If you're anything like us and suffer from a curious case of butterfingers, you've probably already fumbled and dropped the clicker a number of times.

Luckily, when we talk about dropping the clicker, we're not actually referring to you physically dropping the device once again, just for good measure!

What we are referring to is the process of gradually lowering your dog's dependence on the clicker, to the point where it is no longer needed.

Before you start to drop the clicker, you must make sure you've put whatever behavior or action you're trying to teach, on cue. Verbal cues, aka commands are always used just before the behavior happens.

So, let's say your puppy has just sat down, you've clicked and treated, he's got up and is just about to sit down again, now say “Sit!” Click and treat immediately as he's sitting down. Repeat this a number of times.

When you're ready to drop the click, simply replace the click with praise such as “that's a good boy,” to let him know he's done well and then give him his treat. With a little time your pup will start to understand that when asked, it's a good idea to sit.

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