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How to Clicker Train Your Dog

By Laura Nativo

What is clicker training? It’s a fun and progressive method of training where we use positive reinforcement to help teach learned behavior and better communicate with animals. Clicker training is based on what scientists know about how all living creatures learn. By marking and rewarding desirable behavior, we can teach dogs just about anything they are physically and mentally capable of achieving. Clicker training works with any animal regardless of age, breed, species – you can even try it on your friends! Consistency and timing are absolutely key in this type of training so be sure to give your dog your full attention during the training process.

What You’ll Need

  • Clicker
  • Treat pouch
  • Stop watch (you can use an app on your phone, if available)
  • Healthy, high-value treats – and lots of them!
  • A quiet training space

Clicker Training in 7 Steps

Step 1: Go to a quiet training location where you and your pup are comfortable.

Step 2: Put your hands behind your back with the treats ready from your treat pouch. Keeping your hands still or hidden will keep your dog from getting distracted by the reward.

Step 3: WATCH carefully for the behavior you want (sit, lay down, touch, etc.).

Step 4: MARK the action with a click from the clicker the precise moment your dog does it – not after. Think of this like snapping a photo.

Step 5: REINFORCE the behavior within one second of the click. You want to reward the behavior right away with a treat or toy. You can also give your dog verbal praise, but during the learning process it’s best to remain quiet to allow your dog the chance to focus more clearly on the sound of the clicker rather than your voice.

Step 6: Repeat Steps 1-5 until you feel that your dog has mastered them (usually about 8-10 times). Keep your training sessions short, about 2 minutes each.

Step 7: Move to a new location and do it all again.

This works because of the ABC's of behavior: Antecedent > Behavior > Consequence.

A > something happens B > there is behavior. C > there is a consequence.

This process of learning is known as operant conditioning, and all living organisms learn in the same way.

The consequences influence the next action. Will the learner repeat the behavior? Stop the behavior? Or try a different behavior? As our dog’s teacher, we can help influence both the environment and consequence of our dog’s actions. Our dog chooses their behavior, and we decide the consequence – we can ignore, reward, or punish. That is why dog trainers have a mantra, “set your dog up for success!” Because we understand how positive reinforcement (rewarding good behavior) is the kindest way to impact behavior change.

Adding Cues to Behaviors

It's helpful to track of the number of correct successes in each training session. Once your dog has been clicked many times and confidently repeats the behavior, he or she knows why they earned the click and is ready to learn the cue. A cue is a name for the behavior. You can use a visual gesture, a spoken word, or even a signal in the environment. Positive trainers like to think of giving cues instead of commands because a cue is an opportunity for reinforcement whereas a command has more of a “you must do this right now” feel to it.

using a clicker to train a pit bull

A clicker is for the learning phase of training. Once your dog learns a behavior and generalizes the cue, you don't have to walk around with a clicker all day. Instead, you can use a verbal marker, like "YES!" and random rewards to keep your dog motivated to listen. The more difficult the task, the higher value the reward should be.

Clicker training is more than just a training method. A clicker trainer focuses on the good, not just in animals, but people as well. The benefits of positive reinforcement are endless! You can teach new tricks and behaviors or diminish unwanted behaviors through lack of reinforcement. You can use counter conditioning and systematic desensitization to help your dog feel less anxious or afraid. Clicker training is wonderful because it accelerates learning, encourages creativity, and produces long term recall. It is also very forgiving of human error; if you click too early or too late, the worst that happens is your dog getting an extra treat! Because the dog is never wrong in clicker training, it helps build confidence and strengthen the human animal bond.

Once we understand this simple yet effective method of communication, why would we ever consider teaching dogs any other way? Getting a reward for a wanted behavior helps motivate dogs to enthusiastically engage with us in the most profound ways, forming a bond so deep that we really can shape the dog of our dreams. It’s up to us.

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