Introduction to Clicker Training for Beginners

Filed in Dog Training on December 29, 2019

Owner pressing a clicker in front of dog's faceThis blog post is meant for the complete newbie as a basic introduction to clicker training.

Have you ever watched those dogs who dance with their owners and perform complicated routines with very few commands and certainly no sign of a collar or leash?

Have you ever wondered how they train their dog to perform such spectacular tasks? It’s a type of training known as clicker training.

What is Clicker Training?

Clicker training is a method that relies on positive reinforcement to train animals and accelerate learning. It is just one form of obedience training, but one of the most effective.

It relies on a “clicker”, which is a mechanical device that makes a click sound when pressed.

When your dog is performing a desirable behavior, you would press the clicker to tell your dog that they did the correct activity.

It gives you the ability to teach simple and complex training exercises with precision, while improving the relationship between you and your dog.

It’s useful for both basic house training and teaching those fancy tricks you see dancing dogs perform. You may be surprised by how many important working dogs such as cancer sniffing dogs and service dogs are trained with clickers. Even some modern police dog training programs use clicker training.

Clicker training is based on a type of teaching called operant conditioning, which was developed by a psychologist in the early 20th century named B.F. Skinner. His work laid the foundation for the principals of teaching through reinforcement and punishment.

While clicker training itself focuses on positive reinforcement rather than negative reinforcement (or any type of punishment), it’s important to have some idea of the terminology before we get started.

What is Positive and Negative Reinforcement?

Reinforcement is something more likely to make a behavior happen again.

If you ask a dog to sit and you give him a treat, that’s very simple positive reinforcement. You’ve given him something that he likes in order to make him more likely to sit next time. In fact, he’s likely to think about why he got that treat and try to do it again.

Negative reinforcement is about taking something away, hence the word “negative” to make a behavior more likely to happen again.

A simple example, which is not recommended, is when a person pushes on a dog’s bottom until he sits down. Once the dog complies, the unpleasant sensation of pressure is removed.

While this method may work eventually, it doesn’t offer as good of a result as positive reinforcement. It certainly doesn’t help motivate the dog to offer the behavior freely. In fact, it usually creates some resistance.

Understandably, if someone pushes you, you tend to push back.

What is Positive and Negative Punishment?

Any type of punishment is intended to reduce the likelihood of a behavior being repeated.

This is where people get a little bit confused. How can punishment be positive? Isn’t it always negative?

Positive punishment is the giving of something that is punishing, and negative punishment involves taking something away. Both are used as a way of making a behavior less likely.

Positive punishment is not recommended since using pain and fear to train dogs requires a great deal of ability, excellent timing and a thorough understanding of dog behavior.

Anyone who has those skills will also understand how much more effective training is without using positive punishment.

What about negative punishment? Well, it doesn’t necessarily involve doing anything horrible to your dog, so it can be useful in conjunction with positive reinforcement if used correctly.

For example, think about how you might withdraw your attention if your dog jumps up at you. That would be negative reinforcement.

If your dog then sat to greet you instead, you could use positive reinforcement instead, making it more likely to repeat.

What Do I Need to Start Clicker Training?

  • Dog (duhh!)

This one is pretty obvious, but I put it here anyway.

  • Clicker

You can buy packs of basic clickers very inexpensively online or in good pet stores. You can also get fancier ones with wrist straps or quiet ones for sound-sensitive dogs. Whichever clicker you choose to purchase, it’s a good idea to have a few of them on hand just in case you lose one.

  • Treats

Treats are the other essential tool for clicker training. Make sure you use treats that are small enough to be used in quantity without upsetting your dog’s tummy, so try to get treats no larger than the size of a raisin.

For dogs that really love their own food, a portion of their kibble can be used as treats. However, it can be more powerful to use special treats when clicker training, so that your dog will want to work extra hard.

  • Quiet space

Start in a safe, quiet space with few distractions. This could be your living room or your garden if your dog is comfortable and able to focus.

You won’t even need to have a leash on your dog, as the whole point of clicker training is for you and your dog to communicate without the need for any force or compulsion.

Clicker training gives you the chance to let your dog know what you’re asking for and for your dog to become highly motivated to do those things.

Introducing the Clicker.

Keep your first lesson simple. The rule is that every time your dog hears a click, he should receive a treat. So, start by clicking subtly. Don’t point the clicker at your dog like a remote control or even make a big deal of it.

Your dog should hear the click and immediately receive a treat. It’s best to deliver the first few treats from your hand directly so that your dog actually gets them.

Keep the sessions short and fun. Don’t do it for more than a few minutes at a time at first, but you can have several sessions a day.

You’ll know when your dog understands what the clicker means when you click it and he looks at you expecting a treat. That’s the first exciting moment in clicker training.

Here is a nice introductory video I found on Youtube if you are more a visual learner:

Beginning to Train with the Clicker.

Decide what you want to achieve. Keep it simple at first as both you and your dog are learning.

Target training is a great way to start. You can buy a target for this purpose or you can use anything that is a clear visual signal. This could be a Post-it note that you can stick wherever you want to or some other item that isn’t used except for this purpose.

Hold the target near your dog’s nose. His natural curiosity should make him move towards it and possibly touch it with his nose. As soon as he makes any movement towards doing that, click and treat. He should start to understand this quickly.

Remember, the click is not your command. It is a signal to your dog that a treat is about to arrive. That treat is your positive reinforcer and it will make a behavior more likely to repeat. He should only hear a single click to mark the behavior you desire.

Introducing Commands.

Once your dog actively tries to touch the target with his nose, you can start introducing a command or request. A common one is ‘touch’. So, say the word ‘touch’, let the dog see the target, making it easy for him to get it right, and immediately click and treat.

As he gets better at it, you can start moving the target around, holding it to his right, to his left, above his head or on the floor. Carry on using the clicker, as before, to positively reinforce him every time he touches the target with his nose when you say ‘touch’.

As he gets better, you will be able to put the target anywhere and ask him to touch it and he will.

At this stage, you will want to start fading out the use of the clicker. The whole aim of this is to get your dog to learn to do these skills when requested without always needing to be positively reinforced.

Conclusion

Clicker training is an inexpensive and proven method to train animals, including dogs, on how to behave. With only a clicker, treats, and a quiet space, you can start the process immediately.

While this article just covered the basics, I will be writing more on this topic in the future. I wish you luck on training your dog.

 

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