If you have ever looked into group classes or dog training, you may have come across the term “clicker training,” without really knowing much about it. Clicker training is a small, handheld tool that is used by many positive trainers to mark a dog’s correct behavior at the exact moment that it happens, and then follow it up with a reward or reinforcement, like a small treat.
Clicker training can be an extraordinary method for teaching your dog (or other pets for that matter) both obedience exercises, as well as amazing tricks. I have to admit that I was quite dismissive of clicker training for a time, but only because I didn’t understand the proper technique and learning principles.
Some of the most basic concepts of clicker training are:
- Being rewarded for a behavior causes an increase in that behavior.
- A lack of a reward, or removal of a reward, will decrease behavior.
- A “click” is recognition that your dog performed the correct behavior.
- It is also a promise that a reward is coming (likely in the form of a treat or toy).
For example, if you’re teaching your dog to sit, you would click when your dog’s rear hit the ground, and then deliver a treat. If the dog did not sit when asked, and thus you did not click, your dog would conclude that it did not perform the correct behavior. The next time you ask your dog to sit, the wheels might turn a little faster when thinking about what is going to earn him the click and treat.
Why can’t you just treat without using a click beforehand? This is a great question… The short answer is that we, as humans, are not great with our timing. There might be a delay in between the time our dog performs a behavior, we dig around in our treat pouch or pocket and then deliver a treat to the dog. This delay of 2-3 seconds can be perceived as very long in “dog world.” Dogs live very much “in the moment,” and they may not make the connection between the behavior that earned them the treat and the actual delivery of the treat. The click serves as a virtual bridge that extends the period of learning. Of course, because the sound of the click serves as something valuable and promising to your dog, they look forward to hearing it as often as possible.
Can you just use your voice to mark the correct behavior? Absolutely, you can mark behavior verbally, like saying an enthusiastic “Yes!” as your dog performs something correctly. In fact, dogs in my beginning obedience classes learn quite effectively with a verbal marker. The downside to using your voice, however, is that it is not a unique sound. How many times do you say “Yes” in a day (like to your family or while you’re on the phone), and you aren’t interacting with your dog? And in how many different tones of voice do you say the word? The unique sound of the clicker is reserved only for your dog, and so when he hears it, he knows that the “game is on.” Using a clicker does indeed take some mechanical skills that must be practiced a bit at first. Thus, once students are able to get their timing down, we graduate to clicker training in more advanced classes.
What about correcting a dog for bad behavior? Clicker training focuses on teaching your dog what you would like them to do instead of getting into trouble around your home. Shouting “No!” and “Bad!” at your dog doesn’t truly give them constructive information, except that you can be loud and scary, and sometimes unpredictable. Or worse, some dogs just eat up the attention that you dispense freely when they misbehave, which can be even more reinforcing to this type of dog than a 12oz raw rib eye steak. It’s more effective to train your dog what you would like for them to do instead of the negative behavior. For example, train your dog to lay in the kitchen doorway politely instead of counter-surfing while dinner is being prepared.
Clicker training is deeply rooted in scientific concepts, both from a psychological and physiological perspective. But I’ll spare you the “training nerd talk” and just emphasize that if you have not explored training with a clicker yet, you might be surprised to find that you can teach your dog to do almost anything. Here are some great resources on how to get started with the clicker training:
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