If you have a dog and have started to search “dog training” one of the most popular methods that you will see is something called “clicker training.”
We last trained our dogs 15 years ago and never heard about clicker training. Monty was nine months old when we adopted him. His previous owners had started training him, and he was very willing and motivated, but he had the goofiness and short attention span of a puppy.
We spent the first few training sessions just getting him excited about training and reliably associating clicks and treats. Every time we took out the clicker, he was ready and willing to learn. We decided to try clicker training as so many trainers and other owners swear by it.
What is clicker training? What is a clicker?
A clicker is training aid that makes a sharp “click-clack” sound (The Catholic School nuns used to use them in church to get our attention). They come in all shapes and sizes, Most are small, (half the size of a credit card and generally about 1/2″ thick) and held in your hand. You press with your thumb and it makes a distinctive clicking sound. Its sound is unlike any other household sounds that your dog is likely to hear – and that helps the dog associate it with training.
While there are many types available at many price points, they all serve the same single function – make a noise. Some clickers come as part of a training package with DVDs and training treat bags. These packages are convenient for people who want an “all-in-one-box” solution and range in price from $25 or more. We bought a clicker all by itself for less than $5.
How does it work?
As we found out, there is nothing magical about the clicker.
You train your dog to associate the specific sound a clicker makes with a behavior you want to encourage. The clicker is not the reward. The dog associates the distinctive sound of the clicker with a behaviour which you can then reward.
The clicker gives you and your dog a way to communicate better as the dog will first associate the clicker with a reward and then get rewarded for the behavior.
First Step: Click = Reward
The first step is to just get the dog to associate the distinctive click sound with getting a reward. Some trainers call this “loading the clicker.” Your first few training sessions should be just a few minutes and focus on getting the dog excited about hearing the clicker.
This can be the easiest -or hardest – part of training. Easy if you have a curious dog who is not rattled by sudden strange sounds. Hard if you have a jumpy puppy.
Some dogs may be startled by the sound of the clicker
Monty was a little jumpy the first few times we clicked the clicker. Treats held no appeal for him against the noise of the clicker.
To engage his natural curiosity we put the clicker on the floor and let him sniff it and rewarded him with praise and treats just for being near it.
Next, we held the clicker as far away from him as possible (but where he could still see and hear it) and had him watch us click it. Immediately, we praised him and give him lots of treats.
We did this for just a couple of minutes each time for three days. By the fourth day, we were clicking right beside him with no fear on his part. He now associated the clicking with happy, delicious things and lots of praise. We stuck with this for two more days, just clicking and eating, so he could become completely used to the sound and realize that the sound is not threatening and instead means good things. Nothing like a little “bacon therapy.”
Click. Reward. Repeat. “Loading the Clicker.”
For our jumpy puppy, it took six very short, 1-2 minute sessions to “load the clicker.” With many dogs, it will take just one or two click-n-treat sessions for them to get the point.
Regardless of how many sessions it takes, when your dog associates the clicker with treats, your dog will be looking forward to hearing every click. Training itself becomes something the dog looks forward to!
With our dog, taking the clicker out of the drawer was all he needed to see: often he was already sitting or would flop into “down” without us even clicking. Who was training who?
A hungry dog is a motivated dog
Make sure your dog is hungry before you start training. A hungry dog is a motivated dog.
Keep the treats small – bits of cheese, tiny pea-sized training treats, chopped up morsels of meat – especially delicious treats that you save just for training. Keeping the treats special adds to the success of the training.
While you can use pieces of his regular food, giving special treats adds to his attentiveness and eagerness to earn a reward. We bought a bag of 500 bacon training treats for about $5. The treats are tiny – about the size of a pea – and soft. And they must be hugely tasty because our dog would speak Klingon to get these treats.( Klingon: laH jIH ghaj Soj – Can I have food?)
So for our first test, click = treat was successful. Bacon is a great motivator- at least for our dog.
Second Step: Correct Behavior = Click = Reward
After your dog associates a click with a treat, it’s time to start training and rewarding for specific behavior.
The secret to clicker training is for the dog to associate the behavior immediately with the click. If you are teaching a dog to sit, you must click the moment his butt hits the ground, and not as he is bouncing back up or not quite down.
It takes a bit of training on your part to get the timing right! With Monty, getting him to associate the exact behavior was challenging. He is a perpetual motion machine so getting him to be still for the moment it took to associate the behavior took several tries.Again, bacon is a great motivator for our dog.
We kept the training sessions short, just 5 minutes or so at a time and always ended when he was reliably performing the behavior. It took several short sessions for the first behavior.
Work on one behavior at a time
At first, you will have to catch the right behavior. Let’s say you are working on “sit.” With our dog, we held the treat above his nose and moved it toward his tail. Most dogs – including ours – will sit to get the treat. As his butt hits the ground, click, say “sit”, and immediately reward with a lavish praise, lots of petting, and a treat.
For the first training behavior training session, aim for repeating the behavior 10-20 times in the space of 5 minutes.
Add Hand Gestures
You may also want to include a hand gesture that is specific to the behavior.
We use our palm facing the dog for “stay” – which is pretty common among dog trainers. We signaled for “come” by sweeping our hand toward our body and slapping our thighs.
Once the dog associates the behavior with both the word and the gesture, work on training so that you can get the dog to perform the behavior to either word or gesture. This can come in handy when the dog is within visual range but may not be able to hear the command.
As our dog understood each command, we added the hand gesture with the verbal command. We then trained for hand command only. Training commands then included a mix of hand commands only, verbal commands only, or a combination. What we wanted to make sure is that our dog could tell what we wanted him to do, even if he was beyond hearing range.
Update: I can attest to the power of the hand gestures. Often Monty can get swept up and excited. I can use our hand gesture for sit and he will reliably hit the ground. I use fingers together, facing up, much like you would hold a treat.
Train for Each Command
Get the dog rock-solid on each command before moving on to the next command or combining commands.
The dog should be getting rewards and looking forward to success with training. Practice. Decide which command is most important to you and work on that first. For our dog, having a reliable “come” was most important. We frequently walk the beaches and wanted him rock-solid on a recall.
Practice, practice, practice
We took our dog to the beach where we could tire him out a little, and make him receptive to both paying attention and get a little hungry for a treat.
We walked about 25 feet apart and took turns calling the dog. He eagerly ran back and forth between us, at first getting treats every time he ran to one of us. Gradually, he started getting rewards only when he came when called. Then we worked up to only getting treats when he responded immediately to the command.
After a half-dozen sessions, he still has puppy-like distractibility, but is happily coming when called – especially when bacon treats are offered!
Focus on the Big Five: Sit, Stay, Down, Come, Give
Our goal was to train Monty so he is welcomed at most places. He is a puppy, so there are times when he is not listening to us or gets distracted by new people or enticing smells.
Fresh goose poop was irresistible – go figure.
He knows his commands during home-based training sessions and can’t perform them fast enough because bacon is involved. Out in the field, he is not as solid as we want – yet. We make a point to do more training in places where there are lots of distractions and reward him with praise (and bacon treats) extravagantly. He has a solid base and will be better trained in time.
Update: Monty is now three years old – and a well-trained, well-behaved dog who is welcomed everywhere he goes. Does he listen instantly? Mostly. He is a dog who is easily distracted, but he knows what we are asking him to do. More importantly, training is ongoing. Every time we take him out, he is getting his commands reinforced.
To Reward or Not to Reward – That is the Question
As we have seen, when bacon treats are handed out during training, our dog is laser-focused on getting rewarded. But what happens when you don’t have a pocketful of bacon? Shouldn’t you still expect the dog to obey commands?
That is why we are experimenting with a method called “the jackpot.” Essentially, this means that the dog never knows if he will get an ear scratch and a “good boy” or a handful of treats for performing the behavior.
We have just started this reward method a few weeks ago, and boy, was our dog confused! (I sat! Where is my bacon?) He loves us, but a “good boy” was not what he was expecting. A second sit earned 4 treats. (Was my sit better? What is going on?) The jury is still out on this method, even though I can certainly see its merits.
Update: Treats are reserved for special times (gotta keep that slim figure) and are often given around command training behavior. Monty gets that we are doing a training session and will sometimes (not always) get a treat.
If your dog is rock solid on the five basic commands – using both voice and visual cues – then you can start combining them and working on tricks.
Some trainers advocate catching a natural behavior (weaving in and out of your legs) and rewarding for it. Other trainers advocate for extending a behavior that the dog has already learned (sit into a beg) and rewarding for that.
What we have found is a little of both. We turned “paw” into “high five” because our dog naturally swings high with his paws when we asked for “paw.” That was an easy trick to teach. We taught him to “sing” because he sometimes likes to vocalize and we named the behavior and use the same command all the time. For Monty, the natural behavior method is a winner
Get your camera ready!
Teaching tricks is a fun way to show off your dog’s skills – and gives you bragging rights with your friends.
How else do you think all those YouTube videos got posted?