Training with the Clicker

What’s all this about “clicking” with your dog? It’s a method meant to teach dogs new behaviors – and even solve behavior problems – using food rewards and a small, plastic clicker. Although the method is actually really simple – you really do just click and treat – the theory behind the method has a very long, proven track record, and it is based on super solid science (it’s a combo of Classic Conditioning – think Pavlov – and Operant Conditioning – which is about creating new behaviors based on consequences). Karen Pryor who used to be a dolphin trainer is the pioneer of clicker training for dogs. (She also founded a dog training school called Karen Pryor Academy, of which I am a student).

When I first started using clicker training around 2000, it didn’t take me long to get hooked. The reason I started using the clicker at all was because I had run into a serious behavior issue with my AmStaff, Luca (he’s in the picture on the front page of this site with me). Everything I was trying wasn’t working with this guy. I watched a video on clicker training, Karen Pryor’s Clicker Magic (check it out in my Store) and I was so intrigued. When I started using the method with Luca, he took so well to it that it became all I used with him, and eventually all my training transferred over to clicker training. In fact, I feel clicker training is such a superior method that I don’t even like to refer to it as “clicker training”. To me, it’s simply modern, effective teaching of dogs. It is hard for me to imagine using any other method because clicker training works so well from teaching a sit all the way to complex retrieving to curing serious behavior issues like aggression and it works on any and all animals, too (in fact, there is even a human version of clicker teaching for humans called TAGTeach).

To me, clicker training is the super-charged way to teaching your dog. Are there other methods that work? Of course! But clicker training to me is the fastest, most fun, and superior way to teach dogs new behaviors. I like it because it makes the dog an active participant in the training (more on this aspect in a little bit). With this method, dog training ceases to be something you do TO your dog, and it becomes something you do WITH your dog. It’s relationship building while teaching.

How do you clicker train? Here’s the nitty gritty: 1) You teach your dog that the CLICK means something by combining the CLICK with a high value food reward. This takes the previously neutral sound of the clicker and turns it into a CONDITIONED STIMULUS – it now has meaning to the dog because it PREDICTS the coming of an UNCONDITIONED STIMULUS – the food. So STEP ONE of teaching your dog to work with you with a clicker is to repeatedly CLICK/TREAT (the click ALWAYS comes first, and the TREAT comes immediately after). The dog doesn’t have to be doing anything at all, he or she is simply learning that the CLICK means something. This only needs to happen at the very beginning of training and it doesn’t take long for the dog to figure out what the click means. Once you teach this, that’s it, this step is done for good and you can now use your clicker to teach actual behaviors.

Now, we move onto 2) Using the clicker to teach a new behavior. The clicker lets the dog know he did something right. He performed a behavior, did the right thing, finished the job and now he is going to be “paid” (rewarded with a click and a food treat) for it. So let’s say I want to teach a sit. The dog sits, I click and treat. I don’t say the word SIT yet because I want to get the dog to see that sitting means he’s going to get a click and treat. Usually in a very short time, the dog figures out he can “make” his human click by sitting. When you can PREDICT (assume) the dog is going to sit, you can start saying the cue (aka command) SIT and when the dog plops his butt to the floor, you click and treat. Before long, you will be able to CUE the dog to sit, he will sit, then you click and treat (and no, you don’t have to use a clicker and treats forever, we’ll tackle that question in a later blog).

That is clicker training in a nutshell. You can take that general formula of GET THE BEHAVIOR TO HAPPEN – > Click and Treat When It Does – > CUE the Behavior When You Can Predict It As the Dog Is Doing the Behavior – > Click and Treat for the PERFORMED Behavior, then CUE the Behavior to Have it HAPPEN, and teach just about anything.

Now here is the really cool part about clicker training. I mentioned above that the dog becomes an active participant in the training process. What did I mean by that? Well, the dog figures out that he can “make his human click” by doing certain behaviors. To us, we’re getting what we want because the dog is performing the desired behavior. To the dog, he is doing something to get what HE wants, and what he wants is for us to click and treat. So it’s a back and forth, give and take effort. It empowers dogs to think, to engage with their humans in a cooperative, non confrontational way, and it actually helps build self confidence in dogs with fear or shyness issues because it helps them learn how to control their environment in a way that makes sense to them. And for so-called “dominant dogs”, it teaches them to work in cooperation with their humans (most issues that are labeled as “dominance-based” are actually conflict or confusion-based issues – i.e. the human wants one thing, the dog wants another – that occur between dogs and their people and because clicker training is so simple and clear, it takes away a lot of the issues that caused the problem behaviors in the first place).

Old school training methods are about DOING something to your dog to FORCE him to perform a behavior. Jerk the leash. Push him into a sit. Drag him to your side. The dog doesn’t have much say and learns to perform the behavior because the consequence of NOT performing is discomfort and even pain. This is about FORCING your dog into compliance, and it is scientifically proven to have a lot of fallout (unintended negative consequences). It may work in the short run – or even the long run – but at what consequence? Lack of trust, fear, infliction of pain, unintended aggression? Clicker training on the other hand, TEACHES the dog through use of very clear feedback and rewards (paydays). Training becomes fun, and the relationship between dog and human builds. This isn’t about “letting your dog get away with bad behavior” or letting your dog think he has control – it is about informing him of new, better ways to behave. And really, what’s wrong with letting your dog think he has control if all the behaviors he performs are the ones you want anyway? This is paradigm shifting at its finest.

Clicker training helps us get away from that old notion of having to force and prod and push and pull and dominate, and flips training into a TEACHING scenario where respect, guidance, and reward becomes the name of the game.


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