How to Train Your Dog with a Clicker
Learn 6 tips to help you clicker train easily and effectively.
In my last article, I explained what makes the simple clicker such a powerful training tool. Today, some tips for using the clicker most effectively as you work with your own dog.
How to Train Your Dog with a Clicker
And now to your clicker tips.
1. Always Follow a Click with a Treat. Always.
Always immediately follow a click with a treat. Even if you clicked accidentally. Even if you clicked a behavior you would really rather not strengthen. Remember, the click in itself means nothing to your dog--she could care less about it. She learns to pay attention to it because it reliably predicts food. Food keeps dogs alive and consequently food does matter in its own right. Every click that’s not followed by a treat weakens the clicker’s reliability as a predictor of food. The less reliable the clicker is, the less relevant it is to your dog. And by the way, that’s not all-- a predictable, reliable world is important to animals, and there’s some evidence that dogs will check out of the training process when the demon of unreliability shows up.
2. Teach Your Dog That Responding to You Is the Key to Getting Treats
Keep the treats irrelevant. That may seem a funny way of putting it, since you’re rewarding your dog with treats, but bear with me a sec. How often do you hear someone say her dog will do X only when he knows she has a treat? To avoid that problem, do two things. One, carry treats around and … don’t train. Lesson for your dog: The presence of treats does not necessarily predict an opportunity to get hold of them. Two, stash treats in sealed containers around your house or in your training area. Ask your dog to do whatever behavior you’re working on, click, and deliver a treat from your secret stash. Aha! says Dogalini. Just because my human doesn’t seem to have any treats handy doesn’t mean I can’t get a treat by doing what she asks. What does predict a chance of treats? Doing what the human asks.
Of course, it’s fine to whip out some treats in plain view of your dog and start a training session. Just be sure to mix up the scenario often enough so your dog doesn’t learn she can always and only earn treats when she sees them upfront.
3. Don’t Use the Clicker to Get Your Dog’s Attention
Think of the clicker as an asterisk or a spotlight, not as a remote. The clicker is for one thing and one thing only, and that is to illuminate for your dog exactly what behavior is earning treats right now. People who are new to training their dogs often notice that the click gets their dog’s attention, and then they start using the click to … get their dog’s attention. This works if you always follow the click with a treat, but it also winds up teaching the dog to do more of whatever he was doing when you tried to get his attention. Note that this is different from clicking and treating when your dog offers you his attention in the first place.
4. Teach in Small Steps
Picture the behavior you want your dog to do, and also all the steps along the way to the well-trained behavior. Work slow and steady. For instance, suppose you’re teaching your dog to stay. And say your goal is for her to lie down while you answer the door and sign for a delivery. That goal has several components, and if you pile them all up at once your dog will be in the position of a human being who’s just been plunked down in front of a piano for the first time and told to play “Rhapsody in Blue.” It ain’t happening. Teach Dogalini to lie down in the first place, then to lie down for longer and longer periods, then to lie down while you walk away from her, then to lie down while you walk toward the door, then to lie down while you open the door and talk to an imaginary person. Have a helper ring your doorbell while you reward your dog generously for lying down.
Break down behaviors into tiny steps, work on one step at a time, and make sure your dog is performing confidently and reliably at each step before you go on to the next. Trust me on this--training in tiny increments might seem laborious at first, but it works much, much better in the long run. You wind up with a dog who responds reliably to your cues instead of a dog who isn’t really sure what you’re asking her to do or why it’s worth her while to do it.
5. Use the Clicker to Teach New Behaviors
The clicker is for teaching new behaviors and refining behaviors you’ve already taught. Say Zippy lies down 95% of the time when you say “Zippy, down.” In that case you don’t need to click and treat every time he hits the floor. Start singling out stellar performances by clicking and treating only when he lies down super fast. Or when he stays lying down while you bounce a tennis ball in front of him. Or when he lies down a foot, then two feet, then five feet away from you. Eventually, when Zippy routinely drops like a stone and stays put while the Cirque du Soleil turns squirrels loose in your living room, you won’t need to click unless you decide Zip needs a refresher course for some reason.
6. Always Reward Your Dog’s Good Behavior
But never, ever stop rewarding. Once Dogalini has learned that “Dogalini, come!” means “Head for my human as fast as my little legs will carry me, no matter what,” we’re often tempted to take those brilliant performances for granted. Please don’t! You can save the roast chicken for those precious moments when you call Dogalini and she comes to you pronto even though Cirque de Soleil has released a dozen gymnastically trained squirrels right in front of her nose. But stay generous with the delighted happy talk, the play, and the butt scritches (or whatever your Dogalini enjoys).
For more hints on reward-based training, see my articles on using food rewards and rewards other than food, as well as on when not to use food. I’ve also got tips on what to do when your dog doesn’t respond to your cues (hint: She probably isn’t just “blowing you off”).
You can follow The Dog Trainer on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini. I’m The Dog Trainer on Facebook, and you can also write to me at email@example.com. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and I may use them as the basis for future articles. Thank you for reading!
Alexander, Melissa. Click for Joy! (Sunshine Books, 2003).
Miller, Pat. The Power of Positive Dog Training, 2nd ed. (Howell, 2008).
Many more excellent materials, for everybody from absolute beginners to professional trainers, are available through Dogwise. Search on (surprise!) “clicker training.”