Clicker Training for Dogs – How Does It Work?

Becoming the first major advance in dog training since choke chains and spiked collars, click and treat has quickly revolutionized itself in becoming a big hit on the training circuit.  Tens of thousands of trainers and hundreds of thousands of dog owners now use the click and treat, or clicker training, method.

Used originally to train marine mammals, click and treat breaks down the training process into two separate steps, information and motivation.  This is hardly a new innovation in dog training – in fact, most training methods use these two steps.  The difference, however, is that conventional dog training uses the two steps simultaneously, which can confuse the animal and prolong results, while clicker training separates the two steps (the click, and the treat).

Most trainers will verbally praise a dog for good behavior, while at the same time motivating the dog to repeat his actions.  This can be very effective, but proponents of clicker training maintain that it takes longer for the dog to understand which behaviors and actions caused the praise from the trainer, with conventional training.  With the click and treat method, the processes are reportedly more easily learned by the dog.

With conventional training, the trainer may say “good boy” when the dog performs a correct action, and proceed with giving a treat.  The clicker becomes a substitute for verbal praise but can actually catch the “good boy” behavior more quickly than verbalizing it, letting the dog know exactly which behavior he is being rewarded for.  The click, in effect, is more immediate, occurring at the instant at which the first moment of the spoken words would occur.

If you’re unsure what I’m talking about, try pressing your thumb and forefinger together and at the same time say “good boy”.  See what I mean?  With the spoken word, the dog doesn’t fully get the message that you’re praising him until you’ve finished the two words, or are at least a good way through them.  The difference is only a matter of a second or two (or less), but clicker trainers maintain that this is significant when training dogs – after all, as we all know, it’s essential to praise or correct a dog’s behaviour immediately, or the dog won’t connect the praise or the correction with it’s behaviour.

In order to try click and treat for yourself, you’ll need a clicker.  These can be purchased  at most pet stores. They’re basically just a small metallic device which emit a “click” when the two sides are pressed together.

When you’re having a training session with your dog, make sure that you click the clicker immediately your dog starts the requested action.  This is of critical importance.  As far as possible, the click must accompany the correct action by the dog, and not follow it.

Another way of understanding clicker training is seeing it as a secondary reinforcement.   Food, water, physical affection and play (things the dog wants) are primary reinforcement.  When you take your dog for a walk, the leash works as a secondary reinforcement.  The dog realizes that his owner is taking him for a walk, not the leash, but the leash triggers a reaction in the dog, telling him that the leash will let him know where he will go and where he will not.  And if he reacts to the leash with appropriate behavior, his reward will be a wonderful walk with you – something he loves to do!

Clicker training works in a similar manner.  When your dog hears the clicker, he will realize instantly that he has pleased you, and as long as he keeps hearing a click, there are rewards coming to him.  So, the clicker works as a secondary reinforcement, teaching him boundaries and appropriate behavior.

A couple advantages of the click and treat method include, 1) faster response than verbal praise.  The clicker can identify the exact behavior at the time it happens, 2) it will eventually take the place of treats (as the “good boy” does with conventional training).  While motivating the dog to hear clicks, he will also eventually learn to do the desired behaviours without an expectation of receiving a treat each time he does something good, and 3) if the trainer is working at a distance from the dog, the clicker will still work, without having to be right next him.

The third advantage is perhaps the greatest benefit of clicker training.  While any trainer can train a dog to comply with commands from a distance, with clicker training this can often be achieved faster than with other methods.

A good technique to use when getting started with clicker training is to stand in front of your dog.  Click the clicker and give a treat.  Continue doing this for 20-30 minutes, or until the dog ceases to become startled by the sound of the click.  This will familiarize him to the clicking sound, while teaching him that every time he hears it, he has done something good.  After he gets the hang of it, begin by adding commands, such as “sit” and “stay.”

Click and treat has proven to be a relatively simple training method from which you can expect fast results.  So for dog owners who are looking for a new and innovative way to motivate and praise their animals, get out there, buy a clicker and try it!

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