How to Clicker Train Your Dog

One of the hardest things about training a dog is delivering the reinforcement for a good job at exactly the right second.  Too soon or too late and your dog doesn’t understand what it is you want him to do.  Worse, you may reinforce behavior you do not want.  One solution to this problem is clicker training.

The clicker is a small, handheld device that makes a click when pressed.  This allows you to tell your dog exactly when he has done what you want.  Clickers are available from pet supply stores and are very inexpensive.

When you first get a clicker, your dog does not know what the click means.  You have to “load the clicker” to get the dog to understand it is a signal that he is doing the correct thing.  To do this, pick a treat your dog loves.  Hot dogs chopped into small pieces work well for most dogs. Note that you are giving small pieces of the treat, not huge chunks of something.

Get your dog’s attention.  Click the clicker and then give your dog a treat.  Repeat for three minutes three times a day.  Soon, your dog will expect a treat when the clicker makes a click.  Now, sometimes give the dog a treat after clicking the clicker and sometimes give the dog praise.  Do this for a couple of days until your dog really understands that the sound of the clicker means he will get something, either a treat or praise.  Keep the ratio of treats high at the beginning of this type of training so the dog really learns to associate the clic of the clicker with being given some type of reinforcement.

It is important to understand that in clicker training, there is no “NO” or negative reinforcement.  If the dog does what you want, you click and treat.  If the dog does not do what you want, there is no click and no treat.  There is no punishment, no coercion, just volunteer behaviors on the part of the dog and reinforcement on the part of the owner.

How do you get a dog to offer the correct behavior?  You can either shape the behavior, prompt the behavior, or capture the behavior.  Shaping refers to gradually building the behavior one part at a time.  Prompting means you use food, a target or other prop to help your dog understand the behavior you want.  Finally, capturing is rewarding behavior in a dog that he spontaneously makes.  For example, to teach the sit, you wait until the dog sits and then click and treat that behavior.

Most trainers use clicker training in conjunction with food — click and treat.  You can also click and play.  Any game your dog enjoys can be substituted for food.

You can train virtually any behavior using clicker training.  Once your dog understands tha the clicker means he has done something right, he will try behaviors to see if you will click and treat him.