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

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

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.


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).