How Does Clicker Training Work?
Learn how clicker training works and whether it’s just a gimmick.
Here’s clicker training in a nutshell: You have a little plastic toy that makes a clicking sound. You click when your dog does what you’re looking for in a training session, or when she does something right at other times. And then you immediately deliver a small piece of food. So what, you might ask, is the point? This week, how clicker training works and why it’s worth your while to carry around a silly plastic toy.
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How Does Clicker Training Work?
First, a bit of science. Don’t worry, it won’t hurt. The clicker’s usefulness depends on the fact that animals learn by association. The sound of the click means nothing to start with, but when your dog notices that every click is followed PDQ by a small tasty treat, he begins to pay close attention to that click. What was I doing when I heard it? Hmm, let’s try that again!
Technically, food is what’s called a “primary reinforcer,” primary meaning that living things don’t need to learn to like it – they need it, so liking it is built in. And a “reinforcer” is any consequence that strengthens the behavior which produced it. Suppose you say your dog’s name, click when he looks at you, and then give him a treat--the treat reinforces looking at you. The great trainer Kathy Sdao compares reinforcement to weight lifting: the more you practice, the stronger your muscles get; the more you reinforce a behavior, the more likely that behavior gets. (1)
Okay, you already knew that when doing Thing A gets you a Desirable Thing B, you’re likely to keep doing Thing A as long as you keep wanting Thing B. You give your dog a treat for sitting, she’s likely to sit again and again as long as she’s got some chance of getting a treat for it. What makes the clicker so special?
Why Does Clicker Training Work?
A couple of things. As you may have noticed, your dog doesn’t talk. Yes, he communicates, but he doesn’t speak in sentences made of words. Humans, on the other hand, cannot seem to shut up. Result, from our dogs’ point of view, most of what comes out of our mouths is meaningless and irrelevant. They learn to pick out words like “ball” and “walk,” and of course they expertly read our tone of voice and body language. But they generally learn to ignore our chatter. This makes it hard to train them using words.
On the other hand, most dogs hear a click for the first time when they’re introduced to it in a training session. Because this sound is new and unlike most other sounds they hear, they pay more attention to it, and they quickly learn how well it predicts good stuff in the immediate future. The clicker comes to stand out for them--it reliably provides information that matters to dogs.
The Click Is Consistent and Precise
In addition, the click always sounds the same--it isn’t inflected or hurried or slowed down or subject to the other variations of human speech. (2) We all learn better when information is presented consistently, and that’s especially true if we are dogs and have not-very-big brains.
Finally, the click is short and precise. Put a little practice into your timing and you can click the instant your dog starts to turn her head at the sound of her name--not the second before, and not the second later. That matters because dogs move fast. With a well-timed click, you can flag for your dog exactly what behavior she did that earned a reinforcement. Saying “Good dog” takes forever by comparison, and by the time you’ve said it Dogalini may be doing something a little less good.
The Click Zeroes In on the Behavior You Want to Train
For example, suppose you’re teaching Zippy to leave temptations alone. You might start by standing lightly on a dry dog biscuit and letting Zip paw and nose at your foot. Eventually there comes a moment when Zippy, frustrated because he wants the biscuit but can’t get it, backs off a couple of millimeters from your foot. Usually, the first time a dog does this, he backs off super briefly. Using a clicker, you can mark that nanosecond’s worth of non-foot-mugging behavior, so Zippy knows exactly why that reinforcing piece of chicken is being delivered to his waiting mouth. I promise, with some practice you can time that click much better than you could ever time a “Good dog” or even a short word like yes. I’ve found that with most dogs, by the time we’ve done a dozen reps I can’t even get them to look at my foot. (That’s only the first step—sorry!-- of teaching a “Leave it,” of course.)
Clickers Make Training Easier
[[AdMiddle]Because a clicker helps us communicate so clearly and precisely, with a little practice we can easily teach our dogs everything we need them to know. Also, never underestimate how much fun it is to work with a dog who’s eager and invested in the process. I say “work with a dog,” but maybe I mean play. Many experienced clicker trainers believe that their dogs learn to experiment creatively in training sessions, trying to figure out what new behavior will earn a click and a treat. The most skilled trainers are able to teach their dogs charming and complicated dance routines and super-precise maneuvers in dog sports. Some video links appear at the bottom of this article.
In my next article, I’ll give you pointers on how to clicker train effectively. Meanwhile, try this: Get yourself a clicker--most pet supply stores sell them now. Put 20 small, tasty treats in your pocket. And make it your business to deliver 20 clicks and 20 treats to your dog over the course of the day. Look for moments when your dog is doing something right--did she stay quiet when the doorbell rang? Click and immediately treat. Did she head for her bed when you started cooking dinner? Click and immediately treat. Did she look at you when you said her name? Click and immediately treat. Long before the end of the day, your dog will know what the clicker means. And you the human will be practicing the most important training skill of all, which is to notice and reward those moments when our dogs do something right.
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If you’ve been reading my articles for a while, you’ve noticed that I often suggest “Yes” as a word marker where you might use a click, even though the clicker is better. That’s for two reasons. First, I want people to be able to start training right away if they’re feeling inspired. Training with a verbal marker is still pretty darn good, and pretty darn good training is much, much, much better than no training at all. Second, a few dogs are afraid of the click sound. Usually these dogs are skittish about crisp, quick sounds in general. If your dog is afraid of the clicker, you can try clicking a pen or using a tongue click, you can desensitize your dog to the sound (it’s best to get professional help if your dog is sound sensitive), or you can use a word marker. Otherwise, you can use a clicker wherever my articles mention using a word marker.
I remember Kathy Sdao using this analogy in a presentation at Clicker Expo 2006, in Newport, Rhode Island.
Now, clickers are cheap and they are not manufactured to precise specs, so of course they don’t all sound exactly alike, every time, to sensitive canine ears. But compared to, for instance, the spoken word “hello,” every click is a clone of every other click.
Some Clicker Videos
Attila Szkukalek and Fly (Corroboree Happy New Year) perform “The Gladiator.” The video quality isn’t great, but suck it up—“The Gladiator” is an incredibly silly, weirdly touching, and (from the point of view of training) brilliant example of the sport of canine freestyle (aka heelwork to music, dancing with dogs).
Teaching puppies to greet without jumping. Note: This is a terrific technique, but probably best suited for a beginner puppy; for a big dog with an entrenched habit of jumping up, you would likely need to lay more groundwork first.
Teaching a dog to accept being bathed, by Sarah Owings of Bridges Dog Training in Los Angeles.
Jazz the Cat learns to stay on her mat while people eat. Again with the not-great video quality! But, yes, you can clicker train a cat (and any other animal you have handy, such as, for example, a hyena).
More Information About Clicker Training