Clicker Training is the Stuff!

The go to tool for serious dog training

The go to tool for serious dog training

This picture above is a humble device. Every dog trainer worth anything has experience with them and should have one in their training bag right now.  It’s a hunk of plastic with a small metal chunk in it that makes a click when you press it.  It’s a child’s toy really, but when used correctly it is the most powerful dog training tool you can own.

Clickers have been around FOREVER in dog training, well at least since the 40’s or so when operant conditioning came into it’s own.  I’ve used them for years and have incorporated them into training regimens for clients when I thought them appropriate.  Teaching with a clicker isn’t seamless, there are steps to be gone through, but this technique is worth the up front effort.  Getting started with a clicker looks something like this when done correctly:

Conditioning the clicker:  In most cases I like to know if clients are going to want to do clicker work before I arrive.  If they do, I ask them to accomplish certain tasks before I even get there so that we can dive right in with the actual training.

First thing is to build an association with the sound of the clicker.  The technical term for that (if anything here is technical that is) is called Clicker Conditioning.  The way I do this is to sit down with the puppy at meal times and basically hand feed it food.  I’ll click the clicker and hand the puppy a piece of food immediately.  Now, here is the hard part, I’ll do this roughly for 1,000 pieces of food before I actually start to use the clicker for anything other than just the conditioning phase. It’s a LOT of repetition for sure, but it will be worth it.

After the conditioning phase is over, I’ll start with really simple commands like sit, down, go into your crate….and shape those very quickly.  Then I’ll move onto things like “move with me on a leash, lift your paw up when the leash gets under it, and more complex behaviors”.  Nothing is really to small for clicker work.

Once the beginnings of the training is in progress you can start to string together the individual clicker reinforced commands into more complicated things such as the come command.  That’s where the beauty of this work really happens. And that’s where dogs will start to offer up behaviors in hopes of doing things right for you.  This is where the real learning starts to take place with dogs, the anticipation of what their human might want from them.

Using the clicker correctly:  To start with, you can’t do clicker training if you don’t have a clicker on you.  Buy a BUNCH of them and stick them all over the house, or better yet, get some of those zip line thingies that all office dwellers use to hold their access cards and hook the clickers up to that.  Just make sure you have it on you when you walk through the door of the house and make doubly sure you have some treats on you to reinforce the behavior when you click the darned thing.

Actual use:  Figure out what you’re doing or trying to get the dog to accomplish.  There are tons of videos on youtube and a search on Google will give you more clicker stuff than you can digest in a lifetime, but the basic idea is to “mark” the behaviors that you want promptly and accurately which will make those behaviors continue and increase.  Used correctly it is incredibly accurate.

The accuracy you can achieve in clicker work for commands is incredible.  You can, for instance, fine tune a sit at heel command to an amazing degree and get the puppy to sit in EXACTLY the right place and Look Up at you at EXACTLY the right time.  I always tell clients that if they want to accomplish very specific behaviors with their dogs that a clicker is the way to go.

Clicker training is VERY VERY FAST when used properly and when the dog is conditioned appropriately.  I’ve had puppies working on an early heel command within minutes using this method and I HIGHLY recommend it as a way to get your puppy up to speed quickly, or as a more efficient method of teaching an “old dog new tricks”.

You have to know what you’re doing by “marking” the right behavior but once you get the hang of it dog catch on very quickly.  On of my favorite analogies about clicker training is it is very similar to stone carving in that you chip away little piece by little piece until you shape the behavior you want from your dog.  A great example of this is what my six year old daughter did recently with our puppy.  She wanted to teach our puppy to close the front door when it came inside.  The breakdown on how she did this looked like this:

Teach the puppy to put it’s nose on the door.

Get the puppy to slightly move the door with it’s nose.

Get the puppy to push the door until it hit the door frame (almost closed)

Get the puppy to push the door hard enough that it closed all the way and engaged the latch.

Doing all of this took my daughter two days and a total of about 2 1/2 hours.  It wasn’t hard really it just took patience.  The problem she had was that the puppy tried to close the door using it’s paw instead of it’s nose.  Not good if you don’t want a scratched door, so she spent a lot of time working on him just using his nose.  All in all, that’s a pretty complicated command for a dog but you see how quickly it was accomplished using a clicker as the tool.

Simple right??  Well, not so much.  When you’ve got a clicker in your hand there is a LOT of stuff going on and most people have a tough time marking the behavior, handing out rewards, holding the leash, walking, watching……you get the idea.  It takes practice for both the trainer and the dog but it’s worth it.

Clickers are CHEAP.  It’s nothing at all to buy 20 of them and have them spread around the house so that there is always one available to work on behaviors.  Remember, that randomization is the core of getting a dog trained and it is always best to be ready to train at any moment rather than having a set schedule.  If you have clickers laying around, and treats in your pocket, you’ll always be ready to “mark” and reinforce the behaviors you want your pup to perform.  Something like….I don’t know….walking up to you and sitting for pats rather than jumping up on you perhaps?

My ultimate wish as a dog trainer is that everyone would take the time to do clicker conditioning and spend the effort to do at least the basic training using a clicker.  It’ll never happen of course because most people are far to impatient to sit there through the conditioning process, but it would make things so much more enjoyable for the puppies and dogs, and the owners would see marked progress in the training much more quickly.  The other benefit is that we, as trainers, would have to use fewer corrections and fewer negative reinforcement commands and that makes everyone happier.

Steve Haynes

Austin Dog Trainer

Fidelio Dog Works