Clicker training is a great way to effectively communicate with your dog.
It is a scientifically proven way to reward your dog and let them know that they have just undertaken the desired behaviour. Many dogs find it much easier to pick up the noise of a click than vocal commands. The idea is that when your dog is undertaking the behaviour, you ‘click’ and then reward them afterwards.
It works as your dog associates the bridging stimulator (click) with the reward (treat)
Clicker training is a form of classical conditioning or learning via association. You have probably heard of Pavlov’s Dogs, which was the first known use of it.
Eventually, the clicker alone will become the reward, without a treat. This is until they are at the point where they automatically do the good behaviour anyway.
People prefer clicker training to general treat based training as it can be a more immediate reaction to their behaviour. If they sit and then automatically get back up again, and you then give them the treat, they may think the treat was for standing up.
After all, it can take a few seconds for you to get a treat out of your pocket, and for them to realise you have it in your hand. These seconds are crucial in your dog realising what is going on.
But with a clicker, the sound is immediate and doesn’t require their participation. A quick press is all it takes.
Many behaviours can be taught using this method, from simple ‘sit’ or ‘lie down’ to tricks, ‘give paw’ or touching and following items or your palm with their nose.
You can also use it to reward good behaviour and ignore bad, such as clicking if they go to the toilet in the right spot but ignoring them if they don’t.
How to clicker train your dog
If you want to work with a professional, at least in the first few weeks of training, look for someone who is Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) certified.
But it is possible to undertake clicker training yourself, as long as you are patient and willing to put the hours in.
Timing is the Golden Rule – click immediately when they do the good behaviour, not way after or beforehand
Have a proper training clicker, and a bag of their favourite training treats, to hand.
Learn The Click
Your dog will likely need to learn the click noise initially, so don’t jump straight into training.
For some, it can be quite a harsh sound which is scary or intimidating at first, especially if they are a rescue or don’t like loud noises. Different clickers are available at different loudness levels, so you can start with a quiet one at first and then get louder. You may also need a louder clicker if outdoors versus indoors.
Go somewhere quiet with no distractions, and once they are calm, click. Give a reward immediately so they know it isn’t something to be scared of. Try not to click if they are doing something you wouldn’t want them to do at all times.
Repeat this for a few minutes a couple of times per day, for a few days, until you immediately have their attention when you click as they know a treat is coming.
Once they know the noise and know that a reward comes after they hear it, you can start using it to learn behaviour.
Start with basic commands which are key to concentration, such as ‘sit’. If they are a puppy, use the luring technique of grabbing their attention with a toy or treat, lowering it above their head and waiting until they have to sit to keep their eyes on it.
If they are older, they may already know this vocal command, but it is still a good idea to use the command as a way for them to understand what the clicker will be used for. Click as soon as their bum hits the ground, so they know what it is for.
Give the treat ASAP.
Add Vocal Commands
As mentioned, your older dog may already know some vocal commands. But if not, the plan is to one day leave out the clicker and treats, so you need to get vocal. Also bear in mind that hand signals are also appropriate.
Use the word before they do the action, such as saying ‘sit’ as they sit down. You can use the lure, but then leave it out as they get used to what to do. Do remember to use the click once they have finished.
Keep At It
It may take a few months for them to learn all of the simple commands you wish, and as they learn better in short bursts, sessions of ~10 minutes a few times per day will be best.
This means that you have to be patient and persistent. Don’t clicker train for a few days and then get fed up, as they will likely just forget the clicker ever existed.
The end idea is that the clicker itself becomes a reward, and you can leave the treat out. Soon, the clicker won’t even be needed as they will know what to do with your vocal command or other association.
Clicker training command ideas
As well as the usual ‘sit’, ‘touch’ and ‘give paw’ commands, clicker training can be used to teach more complicated actions or even those which will be needed for outdoor or off-lead training.
- ‘Look’ – good if you need to distract them when you’re outside. They look at you on command
- ‘Stay’ – naturally follows ‘sit’ and basically extends the time they spend calm
- ‘Drop’ – if they pick up something to eat which they shouldn’t, this could become much-needed
- ‘Bed’ – they may need to get into their bed for whatever reason, so this could be good to know
- ‘Down’ – if they regularly go onto the sofa or your bed, a clicker could be used to get them to jump down and stay down
Some of the more complicated ideas above, such as ‘bed’, could involve training in smaller steps. Always ensure that they have mastered the previous step before moving on.
Clicker training tips
- Click DURING the desired behaviour. Doing it afterwards will be ineffective
- Reward your dog with a treat as soon as possible. Three seconds is a good limit
- They must always have a treat after the click in the initial stages, even if the click was accidental
- Just click ONCE – clicking more often doesn’t improve their receptiveness
- Hold the clicker behind your back or at your side so they aren’t intimidated by it
- Keep sessions short. Bursts of 5 minutes are more effective than long hour sessions where boredom can set in
- Also, click for small steps towards the end goal – you don’t have to wait until they fully sit, but if they acknowledge what to do it is still worthy at first
- The idea is to raise the goal. The first clicker will be if they sit for a second; after a few weeks, wait until it has been five seconds
My dog doesn’t like the clicker sound
If the click is too loud for them, try muffling it. Use it inside your pocket or behind your back, but so they can still hear it. Don’t hold or point the clicker towards your dog as this can be intimidating in itself. Clickers at different loudness levels are also available.
If you make no progress with this, vocal or signal training may be best, where you use commands or hand signs rather than a clicker.
Can other animals use clicker training?
Yes! Horses, cats, birds and even small animals like rabbits have all been shown to respond to clicker training.
Animals in general will respond to the clicker sound, and they will certainly respond to the edible treat afterwards. Great if you want to eliminate bad behaviour.