Clicker training (also known as operant conditioning or training an animal with consequences) is a fun and effective way to communicate with your pets. Many kinds of pets can be trained to respond when you use a clicker.
This is a popular method to reward desired behavior using positive reinforcement. A clicker is simply a small device that you hold in your hand and makes a clicking sound when pressed. Pet stores sell clickers in a variety of shapes and colors.
The unique sound is faster than saying "Good dog!" and you can precisely mark the behavior being reinforced. In fact, you can even use clicker training with a cat, bird, rabbit, and even horses! In fact, dolphins are trained with a whistle.
Clicker training can be used for housebreaking, dealing with phobias (thunder), manners, obedience competition, search and rescue, hunting, and much more. Normally, a clicker is not used in agility training.
Clicker Training Basics
- The first thing you want to do is "pair " the sound of the clicker with a treat. Stand near your pet in a quiet place with no distractions. Click the clicker, then give your pet a treat. Click and treat several times, and soon your pet will know that the clicker is related to a treat.
- Keep clicker training sessions short so your dog doesn't become bored or tired. During different times of the day, a few short
5-minute sessions, are better than a 30-minute session.
- Shape a behavior or trick into small steps, and progress from a learned step to the next step, until the behavior is completely learned.
- Don't keep the session going if you are angry, or if your pet is frustrated by the process. No stress!
- Train only 1 behavior at a time, until it is learned.
- Keep the mood light and the session fun.
- Give a treat when a small step is learned.
Click, Treat, Association, and Connection
When you use the clicker at every small step of a new behavior your dog has performed, it's called "shaping." This means using the clicker and offering an immediate reward for each small step your dog succeeds in doing. Using the clicker and offering a reward is a way to offer positive reinforcement to shape desired behavior. The reward, praise, and click combination makes learning fun (and delicious) for your dog and reinforce the new behavior.
There is no order to the behaviors your dog can learn by clicker training. If your dog has had no previous training, start with "Sit". Have your clicker in 1 hand, a treat in the other, and more treats in your pocket. Touch a treat to your dog's nose. As he reaches for the treat, move your hand higher and back toward his eyes. Your dog's rear will naturally hit the ground. The instant his rear touches the ground click and give a treat. Congratulations! You have lured your dog into a sit position. Repeat several times, then tease by touching a treat to his nose briefly and then remove it. Chances are he will offer the sit position to you. Click and treat. It's okay if he gets up right away.
Clicking marks the behavior, and your dog will remember what he was doing when he heard the click. If your dog backs up or tries to jump for the treat, ignore him, wait a minute, and try again. Don't worry about saying "Sit". Just click and treat whenever his rear touches the floor. When the connection is made between the behavior and the clicker, stretch out the time a few seconds between the time he sits, and the time you click and treat. Don't make it too long, just enough that he sits and looks at you expectantly. Click and treat. If he gets up, ignore him, and try again. Eventually, he will start coming in front of you and sitting to get his click and treat.
Attach Voice Command to Behavior
After your dog is reliably sitting, start saying "Sit" or use a hand or body signal just as he is beginning to lower his rear before you click and treat. Give the command only once as you move the treat over his head until he learns that he needs to sit when you command "Sit". Voice commands (cues) are attached to a behavior only after you have your dog offering the behavior. A word becomes meaningful when it has been paired with an action over many repetitions. The behaviors and tricks you can teach are unlimited.
Vary Positive Reinforcement
In time, you will want to vary whether or not you give a treat. After your dog begins consistently responding to the clicker, start using it less often. Fade out click and treat as he becomes more skilled. This is called variable positive reinforcement. You want your dog to respond when even when you don't have a clicker or treats available. Be consistent until the command is firmly established, then move on to another behavior using the same process.
Negative Wrong Behavior
Basic clicker training focuses primarily on positive reinforcement of the desired behavior. There are times you will want to let your dog know he is doing something wrong. Incorporate the word "Wrong" into the training exercises. For example, if you are teaching your dog to sit, and he jumps up to grab the treat calmly say "Wrong", withdraw the treat, and ignore him until he settles down. Then try again. Don't yell, get agitated, or jerk the treat away. Use this technique with every behavior you are trying to teach, and eventually. when your dog hears the word "Wrong", he will know he is not performing a behavior that results in a treat.
Focus on the behavior you want him to perform. When your dog jumps up, turn your back, and stay absolutely still. Don't move, don't talk, don't yell, don't push him down, and don't make eye contact. Watch from your peripheral vision, and the instant your dog puts all 4 paws on the floor - click and treat - with praise. If he jumps again, totally ignore him until he puts all 4 paws back on the floor, then again click and treat.