Clicker training for dogs is one of the more scientific methods in dog training. It’s based on research done in behavioral psychology and the method is referred to by psychologists as operant conditioning. But you don’t need to know technical terms in order to get a lot of benefit from the method.
This method was first used with dolphins. With the dolphins, a whistle was utilised rather than a clicker. You can imagine how difficult it is to train a marine mammal compared to a dog. The clicker training method is based on positive reinforcement. It was very difficult to give a reward to a dolphin at the instant the dolphin enacted the behaviour you wanted. However, you could blow a whistle immediately. Then you could follow that with a treat shortly afterwards.
In order to positively reinforce a wanted behavior, you should reinforce it at the moment it happens or very soon afterwards or the animal will not associate the reward with the behavior. The whole reward process is made so much easier and clearer by using a sound from a whistle or clicker to mark the action.
Firstly, you must positively associate the clicker sound with getting a reward. By clicking and following the click with a treat many times, the sound and the reward become associated. Once this connection is made, the clicker sound itself becomes a reward in itself since it’s so closely related to treats in the dog’s perception. This repetitive process is called charging the clicker by dog trainers.
When the clicker has been charged, you sound the clicker when the dog does an action you want and you always follow the behavior with a treat. In true clicker training, you wait for your dog to offer the behavior naturally and click and treat. In order to do this behaviors which are more complex must split up into smaller bits. A tool which assists to do this is the target stick.
One of the first tasks in clicker training is to train your dog to touch his nose to the target stick. Once your dog completes this task, the stick can be used to get your dog to any place where you put the target stick. This is really useful in training other behaviors.
Getting your dog to contact the stick is easy. If you position it in front of his nose, he will almost certainly touch it. Then you click and treat. Make sure you let your dog to touch the stick: don’t touch it to his nose! Repeat this for a few of minutes. Then have a break.
It can take some time when a dog is introduced to clicker training, especially if he is an older dog. Patience is a necessity for good clicker training. It may take a couple of training sessions before your dog gets it. But once he’s got it, it will stay.
Another tool which is very useful in clicker training is a mouse pad or something similar that you train your dog to step on with one of his front feet. You can train this easily by just placing it down on the ground near him and waiting for him to step on it. When he does it, click and treat. As before, repeat this until your dog gets it. As with the target stick, this tool can then be used to guide your dog to a particular place in further training.
The next step after training a behavior is to add a cue. A cue means that you use a word or command prior to the behavior – for example, “fetch” or “sit”. You do this by saying the cue word just as you think the dog is about to do the behavior. As always you click and reward the action. Then, by repeating this, the command becomes associated with the treat, just like the clicker sound is. Please note that when you start training with the cue, you only click and reward when the behavior follows the cue. You don’t click or reward when the dog offers the behavior without you having given the cue.
I hope this has given you some idea of how the clicker is used as an effective tool in dog training. Obviously there is a lot more to learn. What I particularly like about it is that it’s very step-by-step and all that’s needed is consistency and a lot of patience. Read more about clicker training for dogs, a review of the best clicker training book, and also reviews of other dog training guides.