The Beginner's Guide to Clicker Training

If you're embarking on your dog training journey, you've probably heard at least a little about clicker training. But what is it? How does it work? And why does it work? Here's everything you need to know about getting started with clicker training.

What is clicker training?

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Clicker training is a method of dog training that involves using a clicker to mark and reward desired behaviors. Basically, instead of just saying "yes" or "good boy" and trying to shove a treat in your dog's mouth at the exact second he does what you want, you use the sound generated by the clicker to mark the moment when the dog does what you wanted him to do and then offer a reward (usually a treat).

Because the dog will come to associate the sound of the click with the reward that follows, the clicker lets you hone in on the exact moment that you're rewarding, which makes it clear to your dog what you want from him.

Tips for successfully clicker training your dog:

If you've decided to clicker train your dog, there are some things you should keep in mind. Here are some helpful tips to make your experience clicker training your dog as productive as possible.

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  • Think of it like you're taking a picture: If you're having trouble with the timing of the click, think of it like the snap of a camera. Imagine that you're taking a picture of your dog in the exact moment when he performs the behavior you're looking for. If you're asking for a sit, click at the exact second when your pup's butt hits the ground, for example.
  • But whatever you do, make sure you click at the right moment: Even if the "taking a picture" metaphor doesn't work for you, make sure you get the timing right. If you click too early or too late, your dog will associate the click (and the treat that comes later) with the wrong behavior, which ruins the point.
  • Train in a quiet place: Quiet places with as few distractions as possible are ideal for any kind of training, but they're pivotal in clicker training, which depends on your dog, you know, hearing the click.
  • Train on an empty tummy: This is another tip you can apply to any treat-based training you do. A dog with a full tummy is less likely to be food motivated, which makes clicker training more difficult.
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  • Keep your clicker on you at all times: Or, you know, at least as much of the time as possible. You don't have to be in the middle of a dedicated training session to do clicker training. You can also click when your dog just naturally does that right thing. If your dog is lying down and behaving well, click and give him a treat. It reinforces the behavior that the dog is engaging in at the moment of the click, whether you asked for it or not.
  • Only click once per correct behavior: You don't need to click more than once, even if you want to give him more than one treat (like if he does a longer stay than he's ever done before, for example). Just click once and shower with praise and treats.

Why does clicker training work?

In a word: science.

As the American Kennel Club points out, behavioral science, on a basic level, has found that behaviors that are rewarded will continue. Or, as Psychology Today put it, "any behavior that is rewarded will be strengthened and the likelihood that it will appear will increase, while any behavior that is not rewarded will be weakened and the likelihood that it will appear will decrease."

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Clicker training takes advantage of this basic principle of behavioral science by making it easier for the dog to connect the desired behavior with the reward you give him. This results in a quicker acquisition of new skills for your pup and a quicker path to the joy of a well-trained dog for you.

What equipment do I need to start clicker training?

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This one is easy. Clickers are super cheap—you can get a five-pack on Amazon for just $8. Or you can choose to make your own clicker. Other than that, all you need is a bag of your dog's favorite training treats (either small training-specific treats or larger treats that you're able to break up into smaller pieces—you don't want to overfeed your dog while training) and plenty of time and patience.

Charging the clicker

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"Charging the clicker" refers to the process of making your dog associate the sound of the click with a treat. Here's how to charge the clicker:

  • Settle in to hang out with your dog, preferably at a time when you're alone. Have a bag of treats and your clicker handy.
  • When you're ready to get started, click your clicker and immediately throw your dog a treat. He'll probably look at you at the sound of the click, even if this is your first time charging the clicker. This process is known as click and treat (C&T for short).
  • Wait until your dog has lost interest in you before you C&T again.
  • C&T randomly for several minutes. It's important to make sure that your dog is doing something different every time you click during a charging session though, otherwise, he might start to associate the click with a specific behavior, which is not what you want. The only focus now is to get him to associate the click with the treat.
  • Make sure you C&T at least 20 times before you pack up for the session.
  • Wait at least two hours, but then do another charging session.

As with any dog training, make sure your training sessions are no longer than 15 minutes, and stop if your dog seems anxious or distressed. And always give your dog lots of praise and pets at the end of a session. Happy clicking!