How to Train Your Dog with a Clicker

Learn 6 tips to help you clicker train easily and effectively.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #98

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.

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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

The clicker has one job: to tell your dog exactly what behavior is earning treats right now.

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.


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).