I bought my very first clicker some 18 years ago to train a bull terrier for the show ring. He moved like a dream and stood like a statue when asked to. He won multiple groups and Best in Show placements. I could get that dog to do anything I wanted and I credit all of it to the clicker. The clicker however took a whole new meaning for me when i attended training in the UK with a Service Dog organisation. I witnessed dogs using ATM machines, I witnessed dogs helping clients dress and undress, I witnessed dogs turning into almost full time carers of patients with mobility issues. All of this was credited to the clicker.
So, what is a clicker?
In short, a clicker is a small device that emits a particular sound, usually a clicking sound, hence the name. It is used to mark a behavior. It shows the dog that THAT particular behavior is the behavior you want him to repeat.
How does it work?
The clicker works by positive association. The dog learns to associate the clicking sound with a positive reward. The dog learns that the click marks a behavior which will earn him a reward and therefore tries to repeat that behavior.
The first step to clicker training is charging the clicker, that is, getting the dog to associate the click with something positive, usually a treat. To do this, find a quiet spot and sit with the dog. Spend some five minutes clicking the clicker and handing out a treat to the dog immediately afterwards, so ‘click’ and ‘treat’, ‘click’ and ‘treat’ (c/t). Keep the session brief, and if you have time repeat the process again later. After a few sessions, you will notice that the dog will start getting excited as soon as he hears the click. This is a sign that the dog is now associating the clicking sound with a treat. Congratulations! You have charged the clicker, you are now well on your way to teaching your dog any behavior you want.
The Next Step
The next step is deciding on a behavior you want to teach your dog. My suggestion is start off with a simple behavior, something like ‘sit’ or ‘down’. Wait for the dog to give you the behavior, and when he does ‘click & treat’. Keep repeating this every time the dog offers the behavior. For the time being do not give a command, but simply click & treat every time he does it. Eventually the dog will figure out what is earning him the treat and will start offering the behavior more frequently. At that point, name the behavior. So, when the dog is about to give you the behavior, give the command, then click as soon as the dog does the behavior and then treat immediately afterwards. Keep repeating this until the dog makes an association between the behavior and the treat, and slowly phase out the clicker.
A few tips:
1. Always start off with charging the clicker. A dog needs to associate the clicker with a treat.
2. Make sure you are on point when clicking a behavior. Clicking 2 seconds early or 2 seconds late can make all the difference. You can practice your timing without your dog by dropping a set of keys on the floor and clicking every time the keys hit the ground.
3. If you’re getting frustrated, stop and try again later.
4. Practice one behavior at a time and only move on to the next behavior once the dog has learnt that particular behavior
5. If a behavior is too complex, break it down into smaller steps and teach one step at a time.
Most importantly HAVE FUN and MAKE IT FUN for your dog. The clicker is a tool which gives you the power to teach your dog any behavior you want. It is not however, a magic wand. You need to work with your dog at his own pace. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different behaviors and tricks, and if unsuccessful, simply go back one step and start over.