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You may have heard of clicker training — a type of “marker” positive reinforcement training first popularized by marine mammal trainers — from fellow dog parents or in your training classes. Not entirely sure what marker training is or why it’s so useful? You’ve come to the right place!
Here’s an introductory guide to training your dog to perform a range of behaviors with the help of a clicker: a small plastic device that makes a distinct sound when you press its button. We promise it’s less complicated than it sounds.
Even if you've heard of clicker training, you may never have seen an actual clicker before! It can be an incredibly helpful training tool.
Clicker training uses a small plastic device that makes a little clicking noise whenever you press a button. Clickers usually come with some kind of fastener that can go on a keychain or belt loop and are roughly the size of a flash drive (so they’re convenient to carry during training sessions, walks around the neighborhood, or while just hanging around at home).
You can easily find clickers on the Internet or at your local pet store. Many force-free or positive reinforcement training businesses also offer their own branded clickers to their clients for free!
Clicker training is a type of marker training. Okay, so what’s marker training? It’s where you use specific signals — called reward markers — to help your dog learn more clearly.
In technical terms, a reward marker is a conditioned stimulus that predicts a primary reinforcer. Put more simply? A reward marker is a sound or signal that “marks” exactly what your dog did to earn their reinforcement. One of the top benefits of clicker training: It makes it possible for us to communicate clearly during training sessions even if we're unable to deliver a treat precisely when our dogs offer the right behavior. (More on that later.) That's why marker training was so handy for marine mammal trainers who had to wait until their animals swam to the edge of the pool to physically reinforce the behavior with food.
When we ask our dogs to work for us, it’s only fair we pay them. Reinforcers (often called rewards in everyday conversation) are things 1) our dogs love that 2) are easy for us to give them during a training session.
Common reinforcers include:
If possible, let your dog decide what they like best. At the start of your training process, consider setting out multiple rewards from food treats to toys, seeing which one they go to first, and choosing that to teach new behaviors! (You can also vary between a few favorites to keep them interested.)
The more excited your dog is for their reinforcer, the more motivated they’ll be during your training session.
Our dogs are the ones who decide what is and isn’t reinforcing to them. Just because we offer them something we think they should like — we feel like we’re giving them a reward — doesn’t mean it will actually increase the desired behavior moving forward! Many trainers use “reward” and “reinforcer” interchangeably, but this is a helpful distinction to keep in mind (especially if your dog is struggling with training).
Clickers aren’t the only reward markers, but they are a common one — especially useful because the sound always sounds the same no matter what environment or mood you’re in (not something most of us can say about our voices). Other popular reward marker options include:
There are pros and cons to each marker choice — no one marker is inherently better than the others. What matters is that you pick one that works for you and stick to it! Consistency is key.
Although you can certainly hire a trainer, clicker training a dog can easily be started at home. Here are some very simple steps to start a clicker training program with your dog.
Get your ducks in a row by making sure you have some of your dog’s favorite reinforcers on hand. 20-30 bite-sized pieces of food should be enough for your initial session!
Remember: You're going to go through lots of treats, so keeping them small or using some of your dog's existing daily food is crucial. You don't want your dog or puppy to gain unhealthy weight (and put pressure on their joints) just because they're enjoying clicker training.
Your dog or puppy has no clue what the clicker is until you teach them! To make sure they understand that your marker sound predicts a reward, you can spend a few sessions conditioning them to the stimulus. This is called “charging” your marker.
You can charge your dog’s clicker by:
Eventually your dog will start to respond to the noise itself — they might run towards you before you even reach for their treat. This indicates that they’re forming the right association.
Once your dog is conditioned to your clicker, you can start using it in training sessions to teach new skills.
There are two primary ways to clicker train. Either click your dog offering a specific behavior on their own (capturing) or gradually build a captured behavior into a new behavior (shaping). Unlike many other training approaches, clicker trainers usually remain silent until we are confident the dog knows the behavior we are waiting for. Trainers typically add the cue once the dog offers the desired behavior 10-15 times per minute.
It’s important to mark the right behavior the instant your dog performs it. Accurate timing makes for more effective teaching! And remember to always follow your marker with a reinforcer. You have a few seconds to deliver reinforcement, give or take, to keep up your dog’s conditioned association. The clicker is also known as a “bridge” because it buys dog trainers time between when the right behavior is marked (immediately when they do it) and delivery of the treat (which comes a little afterward).
You can mark complex behaviors during advanced training sessions or just simple things throughout the day, like your dog offering you eye contact on a walk. Be sure to only work with one behavior per individual training session to avoid confusion, though.
Keep in mind that your dog doesn’t need to exhibit absolute perfect behavior for a reward. You can shape up small steps in the right direction! For example, if you want to get your dog rolling over, you might mark when they first start to roll onto their side even if they aren’t fully completing the trick yet.
When you give your reward, be sure to offer plenty of praise as well. Dogs, like humans, really respond to excited praise so the more you offer, the faster your dog will learn!
The idea of clicker training is not to have your dog respond only to the presence of the clicker or treats. It’s to get them to respond in a range of environments! You start building towards this when you become unpredictable with your rewards.
Here's how to phase out the consistent clicker reinforcement we start with early on in training: When your dog responds to your vocal cue, provide praise, then click, then treat for a period of time. Eventually, the positive feedback of praise can replace the clicker and you can offer praise as reinforcement (provided your dog finds your verbal encouragement to be motivating) with or without physical rewards to keep things interesting.
The reason we use praise for this? It’s important you never click without giving your dog a treat. You want your reward marker to always mean a reward is on the way so it keeps up its “charge” to be used in sessions!
Those are the basics behind clicker training and as you can see, the actual process is pretty straightforward. That said, there are some tricks and tips that make the process easier. There are also quite a few books on clicker training out there but here are a few of the tips we recommend:
Dog training can be a lot of work for both your companion and for you! It’s a good idea to keep any specific, skill-focused sessions short to avoid pushing either of you to the point of exhaustion. Consider planning for just five to ten minutes of active training a day — and never go longer than five minutes without some form of break.
Some common times to fit this into your dog owner schedule are:
Try to always end on a good repetition (if your dog is struggling with a new behavior, take a step back and ask them to perform something they know really well) so that you both leave each session on a happy note. This will keep you motivated to dive in next time!
Remember that our dogs have very sensitive noses and ears. The busy park is not the place to start teaching a brand-new behavior. Your quiet living room, on the other hand, or a Sniffspot rental they’re already very familiar with? Perfect. Keep distractions at a minimum until your dog shows you they understand what you’re asking. At that point you can slowly increase the difficulty and work up to more challenging environments.
If your clicker training doesn't seem to be working, you might be clicking for the correct behavior too late. It's crucial you respond to your dog's behavior without hesitation, preferably while not after they're exhibiting the behavior. The closer you get to the exact moment they respond, the faster they'll learn.
Another reason your dog might be struggling with clicker training? If you’re distracting them with your movements. For example, if you keep your fingers inside the treat pouch throughout the session or reach for a reward before you’ve actually clicked, your dog might focus more on your hand than on the clicker sound.
Our pets are fabulous at pattern mapping our subtle physical cues. It might help to practice some of these techniques (click, tiny pause, then reaching for a treat) outside of sessions with your pup to build the best muscle memory.
The best way to do use marker training to work on undesirable behavior (we say “undesirable” because “good” and “bad” tend to be human constructs that often go against what comes naturally to our dogs) is to click and reward your dog with delicious treats when they do the right thing instead of the wrong thing. Don't be afraid to give them guidance ahead of time to maximize their chances of success performing desirable behaviors!
For example: Click and reward your dog when they stay silent if the doorbell rings instead of barking or wait for you to put their food bowl on the ground instead of jumping up and trying to steal it out of your hand. This is where timing is most important, since you want to mark the exact moment they do the “right” thing before they fall into previous undesirable habits (if you wait too long, you might miss the second they’re silent before barking, for example).
Your dog will get the message soon enough that the clicks and rewards only come when they behave well.
Remember that clicker training is all about positive reinforcement. If you use it to admonish bad behavior, the dog is going to get confused.
Remember, too, that a dog that doesn’t respond to your cue isn’t pushing your buttons. They just don’t understand what you’re asking for, aren’t sufficiently motivated, or may even be in pain from a health condition. If you notice any sudden behavioral changes in your dog — like if they used to respond readily to certain cues and now hesitate — consider taking them in for a full vet check to be sure.
There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers. The trainers that review our content are reviewed by other trainers to ensure that we have the best quality filters on our content.
These are the trainers that reviewed this article:
Cheryl Gfrerer, KPA-CTP, MA
Owner, Giffy dog, Twin Cities, MN, www.giffydog.com
Certified Training Partner Karen Pryor Academy, Level 2 TAGteach certified
Brittany L. Fulton, CTC
Founder and Trainer, Dances with Dogs, Silver Spring, MD, www.dancesdogs.com - Certified in Training and Counseling (CTC), The Academy for Dog Trainers
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