There is a lot of controversy in the dog training community regarding the usefulness of the clicker. It is not uncommon to find various dog trainers starting an argument about the relative effectiveness of "clicker training" compared to "marker training". After years of debate, neither side was able to come up with a smoking gun to put the debate to bed. Fortunately, the scientific community came into evidence that can finally answer the question and settle this debate.
What is clicker training in dogs?
For those of you who are not all that familiar with clicker training, the first thing you must know is that it is quite simple. A clicker is a little plastic object that makes a clicking sound.
Its functioning is easy to grasp: the sound of the click is equal to a treat. Once your dog understands this, you can use the clicker to tell him when he has done something right. In other words, the clicker is a bridge between a desired behaviour and a reward: your dog does a behaviour you asked for; you mark that behaviour (with a click); then you reward the behaviour. This has the added benefit of helping your dog understand more clearly which exact behaviour is being asked of him.
Using clicker training for dogs is rooted in science. Clicker training was originally created by marine mammal trainers. They had to use some sort of positive reinforcement method to train the animals. Their task was particularly difficult since marine mammals that didn’t feel drawn to practice could simply swim away! That is why they had to come up with a training method that would enable a bridge between a behaviour and a reward. Clicker training tells the animal that whatever he is doing at the time he hears the click is correct and that he is entitled to a reward.
So how would you use clicker training with your dog?
Picture this: you are training your dog to lie down on cue, however, your dog tends to quickly pop back up into a stand the moment his elbows hit the floor. It is nearly impossible to deliver a reward fast enough for him to connect the behaviour with that reward! That is when you use a clicker!
For example: the moment his elbows hit the floor, you can quickly click and then reward him. No matter how fast it happens, so long as you click the proper behaviour, he knows what he is being rewarded for. In time, your dog will learn, so it is advisable to start delaying your click. This means that he will connect the click to staying down instead of just lying down for a moment. It is crucial that you modify your clicker training method accordingly so that your pet understands exactly which position can earn him a reward!
How to start clicker training in dogs?
Before you begin clicker training your dog, you have to add ‘power of persuasion’ to the clicker! At first, a click doesn’t mean anything to your dog. That is why you have to imprint value to the click. This step is known as clicker ‘loading’ or ‘charging’ and though simple, it is very important!
You should count out 10 small treats. Proceed to click and feed a treat, then click again and feed a treat again. Continue to do so until you have used all 10 treats. Start by doing this continuously, then leave a few seconds between each click-reward so that you and your dog have time to break eye contact before you resume. After ten attempts, your dog should start looking to you for a treat as soon as he hears the click.
When starting to use clicker training with a dog, it is best to start with something simple that your dog is already familiar with. For example, sitting down. Ask your dog to sit, click when your dog performs the desired behaviour, and then deliver your reward. Just like in the previous examples, help your dog understand exactly what will earn him a reward. Afterwards, there are other behaviours that you can try like ‘leave it’, ‘kiss’, ‘shake’ and ‘stay’. Then, you can move onto harder training like ‘hide and seek’!
Using clicker training with dogs is very simple! But don’t forget: after every click, you must feed a reward as quickly as possible!