How Does Clicker Training Work?

Learn how clicker training works and whether it’s just a gimmick.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #97

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?


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).