Based on the principles of operant conditioning, clicker training is a simple method of positive dog training. When your dog does something you want him to do you “mark” the behavior with a sound, usually the sound of a metal clicker. You then give him a reward such as a treat or favorite toy which reinforces the behavior and prompts your dog to do it again. With clicker training, you can teach your dog to do anything from sitting on command to running complex herding or obedience exercises.
How Clicker Training Works For Dog
Clicker training is an easy way for anyone to train a dog. Even a child can learn the techniques and take on some of the responsibility for obedience training.
Stage One: Charge the clicker
The first stage of dog clicker training is to “prime” or “charge” the clicker. Here the dog learns that the clicking sound means he’s going to be rewarded.
Stage Two: Mark and reward
Once the clicker is primed you can begin stage two: marking and rewarding the desired behavior. Simply click at the precise moment your dog is in the position you want. Think of it like taking a picture. Your click is a snapshot of what you want him to do. You then reward with a treat, usually food in a small enough portion that it can be eaten quickly. If your timing is right, your dog should associate the action with the click and treat. This encourages him to continue the action.
Stage Three: Introduce the cue
During the final stage of dog clicker training, you teach your dog the name of the behavior you’ve been clicking with a “cue”, either a command or hand gesture. Once your dog can repeat a behavior easily at least 90% of the time, you can introduce the cue. Simply give the command or gesture before your dog repeats the action. After a few repetitions, click and treat only after you’ve given the cue and the dog responds. This step allows your dog to now relate the click and treat with the cue. He’ll then look and listen for the cue before doing the behavior. In time the click and treat can be replaced with a simple “good boy” or other real-world rewards.
Even complex behaviors can be taught through dog clicker training if you chain together several smaller behaviors. For instance, train your dog to open the refrigerator and bring you a soda by first clicking and treating when he touches the refrigerator, then when he opens it (tie a rope to the handle to help him out), and so on until you complete the desired actions. The only limit to clicker training your dog is your imagination.
Charging the clicker to start training
Activating or charging the clicker is the first and most important step when getting started with clicker training your dog. This is what makes the whole process work! The click! sound signals to your dog that he offered the behavior you want and will be rewarded for it.
To get started, take your dog, your clicker, and a bowl of treats prepped for training (divide them into small pieces that can quickly be swallowed) to a quiet place in your home with no distractions. Hold the clicker behind your back or in a pocket to begin with. This keeps the first click somewhat muffled and allows you to gauge your dog’s reaction. If he’s afraid of the clicker, you’ll need to find an alternative marker.
Next, make sure your dog’s not doing anything that you don’t want to be reinforced, like jumping up for the treat bowl or chewing the furniture. If everything is copasetic, click the clicker and immediately give your dog a treat. If he wasn’t startled or afraid of the clicking sound, you can bring the clicker out from behind your back or out of your pocket.
Repeat the click and treat the process and make sure to reward immediately after each click. You’re not rewarding any particular behavior, just waiting until your dog starts to make the connection that click! equals treat. When he gets excited and looks for the treat after you click you know you’re there. It can take anywhere from five to twenty repetitions to charge the clicker so be patient. And remember not to click if your dog is jumping up or offering a behavior you don’t want. Wait until he’s settled then continue the exercise.
That’s it! Once you’re charged up you can get started with other clicker training exercises including the core obedience commands. From here on out remember to ALWAYS reward after you click. You want your dog to trust the message sent by the clicker, i.e. that a treat is coming. Otherwise, you risk breaking the very tool that makes the initial stages of positive dog training work.
If your dog doesn’t like the clicker
Some dogs don’t like the sharp sound a clicker makes. There are a couple of options if you find that your dog is afraid of the clicker. You can put layers of masking or duct tape on the back of the clicker or wrap it in a thick cloth to muffle the sound. Or you can use a different sound as a marker such as a clickable ink pen or snap your fingers (see Markers and motivators for positive dog training for more alternatives).
If your dog isn’t interested in the treats
Every dog is different and you’ll have to try different foods and objects to see what motivates your dog the most. If you free-feed, consider a switch to scheduled meals and train before mealtimes.
How to get a behavior for clicker training
One of the harder parts of clicker training your dog will be getting him to do what you want so you can click and treat. There are two kinds of behaviors you can use. First, you can wait for your dog to do something you think is worth repeating, also known as “emitted” behavior. Second, you can help your dog along either with treats or by physically putting him in the position you want. These are known as “elicited” behaviors. Each method has advantages and disadvantages, but they both play a role in clicker training a dog.
What could be easier than teaching your dog to do something he already knows how to do? Emitted behaviors are perfect for clicker training, but they’re often hard to come by since your dog won’t always offer the exact behavior you want. There are two ways to use emitted behaviors:
When your dog does exactly what you want perfectly and all by himself, you can capture the behavior with a click and treat. This is the quickest way to train simple behaviors your dog does all the time like sitting.
In shaping you click and reward small sections of behavior until you can combine them into an entire movement. For instance, you can clicker train your dog to touch a target by first clicking when he makes any movement at all toward the target. Then only click for more direct movement in the target’s direction until he can follow the target wherever it goes.
There are two types of elicited behaviors: those obtained by luring and those that are molded.
Here you use food or a target object to guide your dog into the behavior you want. For example, you could take a treat and raise it just above his head and click as he sits. Once you have a behavior from this method you should fade out the lure as quickly as possible so your dog doesn’t learn to rely on it to offer the behavior.
This type of behavior is generally a last resort in clicker training. In molding, you physically put your dog in the desired position, for example pushing his butt down to teach him to sit. The problem is that your dog may confuse your touch with the cue for certain behavior. Then he’ll simply wait for you to touch him before reacting. If you use molding, only use enough pressure to get the desired behavior and phase the touch out as quickly as possible.
Advice on what behaviors to use
Your clicker training sessions will probably involve a combination of the methods described. But your focus on a particular type of behavior may differ depending on your ultimate goals.
Elicited behaviors, either luring or molding, are nice shortcuts if you simply want your dog to understand the basic obedience training commands. It’s usually easy to get a dog to follow a liver snack into a position so you can click and treat.
If you’re looking to teach more complex behaviors or you really want your dog to learn how to learn, emitted behaviors and a little luring are the bread and butter of clicker training. It can take more time in the beginning to shape behaviors. But, as you and your dog learn how to communicate, the process will go much faster and your dog will truly understand the behavior because he figured it out for himself.
What Can You Use Clicker Training For
Clicker training your dog to come
Teaching your dog to come when you call him can be one of the most difficult parts of basic obedience training. You’re asking him to stop what he’s doing, ignore all the distractions around him, and return to you. That’s no easy feat. It can take a long time to develop a reliable recall, so be patient and practice often.
Begin by practicing the recall indoors with no distractions.
1) Step back, say “Come”, then click and treat
Take a few steps back from your dog and say “Come” in an excited tone. If he takes a step or two toward you, click and treat. If he doesn’t move, then clap your hands or use a squeak toy to get him moving in your direction, then click and treat. Keep the tone of your voice and body language exciting. You want your dog to associate coming to you with good things.
2) Increase the distance, then add distractions
When your dog readily comes to you from a few feet away, start to increase the distance a bit with each repetition. Once he’s willing to cross the entire room to get to you, add a distraction like a chew toy or turn on the television. You don’t want to push him to the point of failure so up the difficulty level gradually. After a few weeks, try the exercise outside in the backyard or another enclosed area with minimal distractions. Then build from there.
3) Involve your family or friends
A good way to teach your dog to come when called is to play a recall game. Have members of your family or a few friends sit on different sides of the room and have them take turns getting your dog to come to them. Everyone should click and treat appropriately.
Tips for teaching a reliable recall
The following pointers will help you clicker train your dog for a reliable recall.
Keep the recall positive
Never use the come command to punish your dog, give him medicine, stop playtimes, or call him for any other reason he might see as bad.
Always go to your dog in those situations. Getting called for a bath or to be put in his crate will make your dog think twice before he comes to you in the future.
If your dog is already allergic to the word “Come” you can train a different word to mean the same thing, like “Here” or “Me”. Just use the word you’ve chosen consistently during training.
Leadership is key
Your dog won’t come to you reliably if you’re not in the position of pack leader. It’s important to teach him that you’re in charge and that all good things come from you. Remember to use real-world rewards and practice obedience commands in everyday situations so your dog knows to look to you in everything he does.
Add the sit command
Once your dog has a good grasp of the recall, have him sit when he comes to you. With practice, the sit-on-arrival will become automatic, which is a good way to keep your dog from jumping up or from dashing off again when he gets to you.
Clicker train your dog to stay
The stay command is usually combined with other obedience training commands like sit or down, as in sit-stays and down-stays. Once your dog can reliably respond to the different positional commands, clicker training him to stay in place just takes a little patience and practice.
You should train your dog to stay in both the sit and down positions but only work on one at a time. Start with the obedience command your dog understands the best.
Give the positional command and count to two
Say the command just as you did when training your dog to sit or lay down, but this time don’t click and treat when he gets into position. Count to two then click and treat. Repeat this a couple of times.
2) Gradually increase the time your dog stays
Add a second or two with each repetition, as long as your dog stays in place. You may need to shorten the length of time if he gets anxious and breaks the stay early. Gently praise your dog as he stays so he knows he’s doing a good job.
3) At 5-second stays add a release word
When you’re up to five-second stays, say something like “okay” or “you’re done” at the end of the stay. Then click and treat. This release word tells your dog that he’s done staying and is free to go.
4) At 10-second stays add the cues
When your dog is able to hold a sit- or down-stay for ten seconds, it’s time to add the cues. After he sits or gets into the down position, say “Stay” in a firm voice and raise your open hand with the palm facing your dog and fingers up in a stop-type gesture. When the stay is over, say your release word and click and treat.
Increase the time, then add distance and distractions
Once you’ve trained your dog to stay for at least 30 seconds, you can begin to increase the distance between the two of you. Only take a step or two away at first. Then come back to release your dog and click and treat. As long as he stays successfully, you can continue to move farther away. Practice in different areas of the house and outdoors with different distractions. Only change one variable (time, distance, and distractions) at a time so you’re not asking too much of your dog too quickly.
Tips for teaching the stay command
The following tips will help you get the most out of your dog when training him to stay.
Set your dog up to succeed
If it looks like your dog is getting anxious, click and treat before he breaks the stay early. Then take a step back and reduce the time for the next repetition. Remember to keep your dog excited about training and allow him to earn rewards as often as possible.
Don’t say your dog’s name
You generally use your dog’s name to get his attention and set him up to act. And that’s exactly what you don’t want when clicker training him to stay in a position. You’ll send a conflicting message if you use your dog’s name along with the stay command, so save it until after you’ve released him.
Clicker train your dog to sit
Using a clicker to teach your dog to sit on command is usually the easiest obedience training exercise to start with. You can either capture the behavior when he offers it or use a lure to guide your dog into the sit position. It all depends on how much he likes to sit on his own. Once he sits reliably you can add the verbal cue “Sit” and change the exercise to increase your dog’s reliability.
Directions for capturing
The quickest way to clicker train a dog to sit is to have him do it on his own. Grab your clicker and treats, head to the designated training area, and wait. Your dog will sit at some point, just be patient and watchful. The instant his hindquarters touch the ground, click and treat. Then back away from him a few steps which should bring him toward you. The moment he sits again, click and treat.
When your dog offers to sit correctly 90-95% of the time, one repetition after another, it’s time to add the verbal cue. On the next repetition say “Sit” just as he’s about to touch down. Following a few more repetitions like this, only click and treat when your dog sits after you’ve asked him to.
Directions for luring
If your dog is not the self-motivated type, you can teach him to sit by luring him into position. Because of their bone structure, dogs can’t look up without sitting down in the process so you can use that to your advantage. Hold a treat just in front of your dog’s nose. When he focuses on it, bring the treat slowly up and back over his head. The moment his bottom touches the ground, click and give him the treat. If your dog backs up rather than sits, do the exercise in a corner so he has nowhere to go.
Lure him into position a couple of times for a click and treat, then try it without holding the treat. When he readily sits several times in a row, add the cue as described above. You may need to return to the lure if your dog stops offering to sit or his responses aren’t consistent.
Tips to increase reliability
Once your dog can sit on cue at least ten times in a row, you can change the exercise a little to make sure he has a good grasp of the command.
Have your dog sit in different places
He may sit in the family room every time you ask, but you should test him in different areas of the house and outside on different surfaces. Sitting on grass, a gravel driveway, or the kitchen tile may throw your dog off the first few times. The more areas you teach your dog to sit in, the more reliable his response will be.
Increase the time and repetitions before you click
Have your dog sit two or three times before you click and treat. Also, have him hold the sit position for a few seconds before you click. This is particularly important if your dog likes to pop up out of a sit to get his treat.
Clicker train the down command
The method used to clicker train your dog to lay down on command is nearly the same as the non-clicker method. The main differences are: 1) you’ll use the clicker to mark the moment your dog is in the proper position, and 2) the verbal cue will be added after he understands the behavior.
To begin, have your dog sit but don’t click him for it. If you do, he’ll look for the treat and not realize you want him to do more for the reward.
1) Lure your dog into position and click
Hold a treat near your dog’s nose. When he focuses on it, lower the treat straight to the ground and then out toward you. The idea is to trace an L-shape. The instant your dog’s chest and belly touch the ground, click and treat. Repeat the process several times, luring your dog down to the ground and clicking when he’s in the proper position. You may need to reposition the treat either forward or back to persuade your dog into place.
2) Repeat without the lure
After a few repetitions get your dog to lay down without holding a treat to lure him. Instead, use your hand as if you were holding the treat and trace the same L-shape. Click and treat when your dog’s all the way down.
3) Add the verbal cue
Once your dog can repeat the behavior five or six times in a row, add the verbal cue “Down”. At first, say it just before he gets into position. Then slowly work the cue earlier into the movement until you only click and treat when your dog offers the behavior after the command.
Teaching your dog the down command can be a little more difficult than clicker training him to sit. The following tips should help you deal with potential problems and increase your dog’s reliability in response to the command.
If your dog won’t go all the way down
If your dog only lowers his head partway as he follows the treat, you can use this movement to shape the behavior. First, click and treat whenever he makes a partial movement down. Then only click and treat when he moves a little further down. Build on each movement in the right direction until he offers the complete behavior. Also, see teaching your dog the down command for other ideas on how to lure your dog into the proper position. Just remember to click and treat as soon as he’s in place.
Be specific with your obedience commands
The down command is a specific word for obedience training and is used to get your dog to lay down in a particular position. If you want him to stop jumping, get off the furniture, or just leave you alone, you need to train other commands. Use “Off” to get your dog off the furniture. Train him to target a specific place, like his crate, if you want him to go somewhere else. Telling your dog to “go lay down” in a variety of situations only confuses him and can make his response to the down command less reliable.
Clicker training a dog to heel
The heel command is not a substitute for teaching your dog to walk on a loose leash. Like other obedience training commands, it’s a cue to direct your dog and keep him under control in situations where he could get into trouble. These include walking down crowded streets or in areas with lots of enticing distractions. Training your dog to heel puts him by your side with his attention on you, but only for a few minutes at a time.
You can train your dog to heel to either side of you, but keep in mind that competitive obedience requires heeling on the left side. Begin with your dog sitting or standing at your side.
Say your dog’s name, take a step, then click and treat
First, say your dog’s name to get his attention. Then take a step leading with the leg next to your dog. During the first step, click and treat. After your dog has eaten the treat, take two more steps, then click and treat. Be sure to praise your dog as you step to keep his attention on you. At first, you can click and treat regardless of whether your dog is at your side or not, but you’ll want to reach the point of only clicking and treating when he’s in the proper heel position the entire time.
2) Add more steps
Once your dog can heel for two steps, add one or two more. Make sure to click as soon as you come to a stop and he’s still in position. Slowly work your way up to ten steps. Whenever you need to turn around, hold a treat in front of your dog’s nose and lure him around to keep him in position.
Add the cue at ten steps
When your dog can go ten steps in the heel position, you can add the proper verbal cue. Before you start to walk, say “Spot, Heel” in an excited tone, making sure to replace “Spot” with your dog’s name. Then step out.
Tips to improve your dog’s heeling
Use the following tips to clicker train your dog to heel reliably in a variety of situations.
Use a lot of praise
Teaching a dog to heel is one time when there can’t be enough praise. You want to let your dog know he’s doing a good job the entire time he’s heeling. Not only does constant praise help him keep his attention on you, it allows him to associate something good with walking next to you.
Change the reward timing and how fast you walk
After ten steps, change the number of steps your dog has to heel before he gets a click and treats. Make it ten or twelve one time, then three or four the next. When you vary the timing of the reward, you keep your dog guessing and focused on you. Also, pick up the pace of your walking or slow it down to add another variable to the exercise. As your dog’s ability to heel gets better, you can add distractions and practice in different places.
Clicker training your dog to target an object
Targeting is a great clicker training exercise to teach your dog. The idea is to get your dog to touch an object with his nose. Once he learns to touch a particular target you can use that object as a lure instead of food. Targeting also makes it easy to train more complex behaviors like ringing the doorbell, turning out the lights, or running an obstacle course.
Dogs have a natural inclination to sniff your hands so using this behavior is the easiest way to begin the exercise. Once your dog has mastered targeting your hand you can move on to other objects.
Using your hand as the target
Put your clicker and some treats in one hand and use your other empty hand as the target. Open the target hand with fingers pointing down and show your palm to your dog. When he sniffs or licks your hand, click and treat. Close the target hand and place it by your side. Then open it again and offer it to your dog. Click and treat when he sniffs or licks it. After 8 to 10 repetitions, move the target hand to different places around your dog to get him to follow it.
Once he understands the exercise and consistently touches your hand, you can label the behavior with the verbal cue “Touch”. Simply say the word just before your dog’s nose touches your hand, then click and treat.
Using a target stick
Hold the tip of the stick in the palm of your hand. When your dog touches it, click and treat. After a couple of repetitions start to work your hand up the stick with each repetition. Only click and treat when your dog touches the end of the stick away from your hand. When he learns to target the end of the stick, move it around for him to follow. Let him touch it occasionally then click and treat. Add the Touch cue the same way you did when using your hand as the target.
You can buy extendable target sticks from a pet supply store, or use a dowel with some tape wrapped around the end to mark the target area.
Using a lid or stationary object
Hold the object in your hand. When your dog sniffs it or touches it with his nose, click and treat. Do 8 to 10 repetitions. Then add the Touch cue the same as before while holding the object in your hand. After several more repetitions, place the object on the floor near your dog, say “Touch”, then click and treat when he touches it. If he doesn’t immediately go for the object, click and treat for any movement toward it to start with and work your way up to the actual touch. Once the behavior is consistent, move the object away from you at different distances until your dog is willing to cross the entire room to touch it.
This variation is useful if you want your to dog to do a behavior at a distance.
If your dog goes to the hand holding the treats instead of the target hand
This is a common issue for the hand target exercise. To solve the problem, put a treat in the palm of your target hand and put your thumb over it. Then offer your palm to your dog. When he sniffs and licks at the treat, click and let him have it. Do this a few times, then remove the treat for a couple of repetitions. Add a treat for a few more repetitions then phase it out.
Clicker training your dog to focus attention
Once of the first and easiest clicker training exercises you should try is to get your dog to pay attention to you. This exercise will teach him to ignore distractions and check in with you wherever he’s at. He’ll have a greater awareness of you as pack leader and it can help when you teach other obedience commands like the recall. It’s also a great way to train self-control in dogs with behavioral issues.
Start by putting a leash on your dog and then go to a quiet area with no distractions. (The leash will keep him from wandering off.)
Click and reward when he pays attention to you
Ignore your dog until he looks in your direction, then click and treat. If he continues to look at you, keep clicking and treating. Gradually increase the time between clicks to increase his ability to pay attention. If your dog looks away, simply ignore him. Wait until he turns back to you and then click and treat.
Time the exercise for one minute
Once your dog consistently pays attention to you, time the exercise for one minute. Count how many times he focuses on you. If he looks to you more than five times during the minute, it’s time to add some distractions.
Take your dog to another area with a few distractions, for instance to the living room with the television on or go outside. Repeat the steps above working up to the one-minute test. If your dog loses focus and only looks to you once or twice during the minute, reduce the number of distractions and start again. If his attention comes to you more than five times, then continue to change the area for the exercise and add other distractions.
Remember to vary the reward amount and the length of time your dog has to pay attention to get a treat. This will keep him guessing so he works harder for the reward. Give a big reward, or jackpot, for exceptional responses.
If your dog won’t look at you
Make a sound by squeezing a squeak toy or smacking your lips to get his attention. When he looks, click and reward. Phase the sound out at as quickly as possible.
Tips for successful clicker training
Once you have a good idea of how clicker training works, keep the following tips in mind to perfect your technique and take your dog’s training to the next level.
Every click is a treat
Once you’ve charged the clicker, never click without giving your dog a reward. Clicker training depends on your dog trusting that a reward will come when he hears the marker.
If you’re inconsistent, your dog won’t make an effort to remember the behavior that prompted the click.
Make the reward worth the effort
Try rewarding your dog based on how well he has performed a particular behavior.
If you’ve been working extra hard to shape the down command and he finally gets it, give him a few extra treats for his effort. Then take a break to let his newfound knowledge sink in.
Timing is crucial
The more precise you are in clicking an offered behavior, the quicker your dog will learn. Click too soon or too late and he won’t know the exact behavior you want from him.
If you have trouble with an obedience command or trick, have someone sit in on a training session to see if you’re timing is the issue.
The clicker is only used to mark a behavior
Never use your clicker to get your dog’s attention or make him offer a behavior.
Think of the clicker as a camera. Its only job is to take a snapshot of the precise moment you want your dog to remember.
The “Two-in-a-Row” Rule
Do your best to keep your dog from making a mistake more than twice in a row. You want to maintain his focus and enthusiasm for training.
If he messes up more than twice, change the exercise to help him out. Lure him into position, remove some of the distractions, or shape a smaller part of the full behavior.
Have a plan and keep notes
The easiest way to ensure success with clicker training is to have a goal for your sessions and keep notes. Record how well your dog does with a particular exercise, what he responds to best, what he learned quickly and what took more effort.
A training journal can give you insight into how your dog thinks, which can make training him that much easier.
Wean your dog off the clicker and treats slowly
Begin to phase out the click and treat for an exercise once your dog can perform with 100% accuracy. At that point, click and treat after a couple of repetitions or when he has held a position for a longer time.
Also start to adapt exercises so there can be a real-world reward such as being let outside or greeting a guest. Never cut the click and treat out all at once. This will only confuse and frustrate your dog since he has learned to expect them for a particular behavior.