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The Ultimate Guide to Clicker Training

Many dog owners struggle with training. Puppies can be difficult to train because they're excitable, easily distracted, and full of energy. Older dogs can be a challenge for the opposite reasons: they tend to be a bit stuck in their ways and less interested in making behavioral changes.

Still, dogs love treats, and they love rewards. That's why clicker training, when done right, is so effective. No matter what the dog's age, clicker training is a fast and effective way to get a dog to repeat good behaviors and stray away from unwanted behaviors. Best of all, clicker training is a low frustration activity that involves no reprimands or discipline.  

What is a clicker, anyway? 

A clicker is a little box or remote-control shaped device that makes a clicking noise. Trainers use clickers to tell dogs, "I want more of this behavior." After clicking the box, the trainer gives the dog a treat. It's that simple. By associating the click with a desired behavior, the trainer encourages the dog to repeat the desired behavior.

Example:

The trainer tells the dog to sit. The dog sits down. The moment the dog's rear end touches the floor, the trainer clicks the box and tosses the dog a treat.

It's that easy. By clicking the box at the right moment, the trainer produces a meaningful association for the dog. The dog realizes, by doing this action, I will get a click and a treat. Asking for the behavior again is likely to produce good results, because the dog wants further treats.

How can you get started?

Clicker training starts with a step called conditioning. Conditioning is the process of teaching the dog that clicks equal treats. To condition your dog, start with a handful of about 10–20 treats. Go to a quiet area in your home and sit down.  When he does, click the button, then toss your dog a treat. After a few moments, click the button again and toss your dog a treat.

Do this 10 or 20 times in a row. Hopefully, your dog will start to associate the click with the treat.

To find out if your dog understands the association, wait until the following day. When you are both somewhere away from the area where you conditioned your dog, produce a click. If your dog looks your way or gets excited, this is a sign that your dog knows a treat follows a click. Reward your dog with a treat. If your dog ignores the click, have another conditioning session. After a second condition session, wait a day, push the clicker and wait for a reaction. Repeat these steps until your dog consistently indicates he understands: one click equals one treat.

My dog has been conditioned. What now?

Once your dog understands the significance of the clicker, you can start using the clicker as a training tool. When your dog performs a desired behavior, click and reward.

Click the instant your dog does something you like. Don't wait until after the behavior is over; do it the moment the behavior takes place.

Some tips:

  1. Never click without giving a treat. Even if you didn't mean to click, you must still give your dog a treat. If you have no treat, throw your dog a toy, then play together for a moment.
  2. Train for only five minutes at a time. Short trainings help keep your dog engaged throughout the session.
  3. Never double click the clicker. Click once. To show extra praise for a good behavior, reward your dog with two treats. Do not reward with two clicks.
  4. Never click directly in your dog's ear.
  5. Never yell at your dog during a clicker training session. 

What if your dog is ignoring your cues?

If you're requesting a specific behavior and your dog has ignored you, wait a few moments and request the same behavior again. Do not give your dog a click or a treat unless your dog starts to engage in the behavior you're seeking.

You may reward your dog for beginning the behavior, even if your dog does not completely follow through. This is called shaping. For example: you would like your dog to shake. Your dog raises his paw a tiny bit, then sets the paw back down. Reward your dog with a click the instant he raises his paw just a little off the ground.

The next time your dog lifts his paw a little higher, click and reward. Repeat these steps, encouraging your dog to lift his paw a little higher each time, until your dog will sit and wait patiently with his paw held in the air. 

What if you don't have a clicker available?

You can hold a clicker training session even if you don't have a clicker available. Pick a word, preferably one that is not too common, and condition that word as you did the clicker.

For example, suppose you choose to condition your dog to the word “yep.” Start with 10 to 20 treats. Say the word "yep," then toss your dog a treat. Follow the conditioning process by saying the word and then tossing a treat until your dog responds to the word yep as he does to the sound of the clicker. 

Why is a clicker more useful than traditional training?

The clicker rewards a behavior as it is taking place. With a clicker, a trainer can be very specific about which behaviors are desirable. The clicker enables the owner to reward behavior even if the dog is not right beside the trainer.

For example, your dog chases a ball. You want your dog to take hold of the ball in his mouth. The minute your dog catches the ball, you push the clicker. Your dog knows when he comes back to you, he'll get a treat for catching the ball.

In a similar manner, the clicker can be used for training the dog that tends to wander away from you or your property. As soon as your dog wanders, call his name to return and click the second he turns back around. This positive reinforcement will keep your dog safe.

Following these tips can make training your dog easier, more enjoyable, and more rewarding. If you have questions about clicker training, talk to an expert to get effective dog training for your pup.


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