The Benefits of Clicker Training

17 years ago I got my first dog.

I always had dogs at home but he was mine. My Border Collie. I trained him myself and trained myself along the way. We attended puppy classes, agility classes and progressed to competitions and every possible dog based sport/activity I could find. The thing is, he was brilliant, sensitive and willing. The perfect dog and he did everything right. I even became a trainer at my local dog training club.

Since then I have owned and trained quite a few dogs. All (in my opinion) successfully. And then I decided – lets rescue a Border Collie, it will be fun. I can start training agility again and maybe even herding.

Fast forward a few months, I have a highly strung, painfully shy, suspicious, slightly aggressive and very vocal BC cross monster. Let the fun begin. I start training as I always did and I hit a brick wall. Nothing worked. No pulling, no pushing, the slightest coercion or raising of my voice would make him freeze, growl or run in the opposite direction. And so l discovered marker training.

The theory is this; dog training is a language. Dogs communicate with the world using their entire bodies. The eyes, tail, head position, everything means something. Ignore these signs and the dog has to be clearer and more forceful (the equivalent of us raising our voice and finally perhaps punching) When the initial communication is ignored the dog will use growls, barks and ultimately either bites or shuts down completely (freezing = shut down dog) these dog are then considered dangerous/unbalanced.

Traditionally, aggressive dogs are trained by getting them to submit to an “alpha” (think Cesar Millan).

The results are that these dogs, usually just nervous with contact to begin with, become more and more aggressive or shut down in their need to escape. The outcome is a dog that doesn’t give any warning signs and bites straight away or won’t come out of his shell. This is a cycle that doesn’t end well.

So what do we do differently?

We are not only positive trainers – but communicative trainers. The dog gets his say in the scheme of things. We want the dog to partake in the training as opposed to merely being trained. How do we do this?

The basic rules:

  • We use a clicker – Every time you click the dog MUST get a reward – this is classical conditioning, think Pavlov’s dogs.
  • There is no “no” only “yes“, if the dog does not do what you want, you do not click, he does not get the reinforcement. Remember: If it’s a worthwhile reinforcement your dog will want it.
  • There are no physical corrections, do not pull on the collar, push down his bum or physically restrain the dog in any way.
  • Your dog is an individual, he has good days and bad days, moments of stress and moments of distraction. Let him be a dog, let him sniff and come back to you. Let him scratch and shake and maybe run around a bit in training. And if he is having an off day just don’t train.

I had previously had little luck understanding the clicker so I was a bit hesitant when it was handed to me the first time. But after a while I noticed my dog got really excited every time I went near the clicker. The tricks I taught him using the clicker he tended to repeat more often and even offer them to me when we weren’t in a training session.

I quickly realized what he was telling me – I like this. We haven’t looked back since.

Clickers aren’t for everyone. Nor are they necessary for successfully training your dog. They enable us to reinforce good behavior without having to ask anything of our dog. We classically condition the dog to associating the clicker with only good experiences, so that eventually just the sight of the clicker is associated with good feeling and training becomes your dog’s favorite part of the day. It’s as easy as click and feed.

Clicker Training and Practice

Why is this good?

Research has shown the mammals are always in search for those “feel good” moments. Food, warmth, comfort, sex all result in those fuzzy feeling we all like. It’s no different for dogs. Food for them is survival, and therefore results in “feel good”. When we feed them we strengthen their bond to us because it is us supplying the “feel good” and in parallel we are activating that part of their brain which says you’re happy, this is good.

In traditional training when we teach a dog a cue, we initially use the word with no outcome. So first time I want to teach fluffy to sit I say sit and he looks at me blankly. My next step would be to correct him which means pushing him somehow into the sitting position (the pull up lead and push down bottom seesaw motion that all trainers are familiar with). This can results in one of three things.

Either the dog learns that the cue is immediately followed by some sort of reaction on your part and learns to hate this reaction and therefore acts i.e. sits on his own (to avoid the leash pull or pressure on his back), or develops a fear towards cues and the word “sit” in particular (and acts by freezing, running away, growling). Alternately he can learn that he doesn’t really have to perform any action since when he doesn’t you push him into it and hence the word holds no meaning for the dog.

Dog Training ClickerThis is what we call a poisoned cue – A cue which has either no meaning or which the dog associates with something unpleasant.

To avoid this we try to get to dog to perform the wanted behavior with as little interference from us as possible. This may mean luring the dog with food, sitting and waiting patiently for the behavior (shaping) or trying to capture the behavior in normal daily situations (capturing).

These methods are admittedly slower than traditional training methods, but because your dog actively participates, the cue becomes more ingrained and easier for them to repeat. Because it’s pleasant the dog will often offer the newly learned behavior in all types of situations because it gets him the “feel goods”.

Clicker Training and Practice:

  • Get yourself a clicker, they are cheap and small (buy from Amazon).
  • Get a bunch of really worthwhile treats (sausages, cold meat cuts, cheese, mince, tuna – whatever smells and gets your dog’s attention), cut the treats up into SMALL pieces and put it in a packet, pouch or somewhere easy to reach.
  • Say your dog’s name – click and feed – repeat.
  • The click should come immediately. Don’t wait for a reaction, just say the name, click and feed.
  • Remember: EVERY click needs to be followed by a treat.
  • Do this often, you will notice your dog will respond every time he hears his name.
  • You don’t have to click and treat every time you say his name, just often enough so he associates his name with a good outcome. Do this during random times of the day so your dog will never know when to expect it
  • Now that you have your dog’s attention you can do anything 🙂

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Rinat Shenkar

Rinat has been working with dogs for over 17 years.

She is a groomer, trainer and dog behaviorist. Her aim is to help improve the lives of pets and owners alike. She believes that communication is the key and creating compassion is the objective.

Rinat Shenkar

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13 thoughts on “The Benefits of Clicker Training

  1. Is it possible to do this kind of training without rewarding them with food? My dog has a weight issue and is on a strict diet.

    • Hi Arian, You can reduce the size of your dog’s meals and use the rest as treats. Or you can use healthy treats, some dogs love carrots or baked sweet potatoes, just avoid grapes and raisins as those may be toxic for some dogs . Alternatively you can try use a ball or some toy (that your dog *really* loves) for motivation but that makes the process a bit longer because instead of feeding your throwing a ball each time and your dog will get tired faster.

  2. Hi Rinat,

    Very informative post! I have a 5 year old Yorki that has been trained “traditionally”.

    Could he be “crossed over” to clicker training?

    • Sure, all my dogs are cross – overs. Just make sure of a couple of that none of your cues are poisoned (as I wrote in the article) if they are just change the word and teach it from the beginning using a clicker. Also dogs get really confused when you combine traditional and clicker training, so if your going to clicker train try to avoid physically correcting your dog. Be patient it takes them a few tries to figure out what you want:)

  3. Hi Peter, it really depends on a lot of aspects. The complexity of the behavior being taught, the training method used (as mentioned in the article, capturing, luring or shaping) and how long before your dog understands what you want. If you work correctly, that is, click at the right time (as soon as the wanted behavior begins) then most dogs usually understand within one or two sessions.

  4. For some reason, my Maltese (9 month old) is scared of the clicker.

    The sound of the clicker makes him step away from me. What can I do?

  5. Hi Mellisa, there are two main types of clickers, a plastic button clicker and a box clicker. The plastic button has a gentler click which is good for dogs that are sensitive to sound. If the sounds still disturbs him you can wrap the clicker in a sock to muffle the clicks for the first few sessions until he becomes accustomed to the sound.

  6. Hi.

    What’s the optimal age to start clicker training?

    I got my dog 3 weeks ago, and the staff from the shelter told me he’s 2. Is he too old?

  7. Dog’s are never too old to learn:) depending on the breed some dogs only fully mature at 2, so don’t worry. Keep in mind that he might have had bad experiences in the past so I would definitely start by teaching him to associate his name with a good outcome. Thanks for adopting and enjoy:)

  8. I had no idea about the clicker. I myself have used whistles and stuff, but I always feared that caused problems for a dog. Anyways, I will try this method as my dog barks all the time and doesn’t listen to me at all.

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