What is clicker training?
Clicker training can look very complicated to the everyday dog owner, and from the outside, look, well, silly. ‘Why would I want to use clicker training when I just want a well behaved pet dog, not a dog who’s going to perform tricks or competition obedience?’ you may ask yourself.
I’m here to say I love clicker training and you should too!
Dogs learn through association / response and repetition. If they do something and something good happens, they’re more likely to repeat the behaviour. If they do something and nothing happens they’re less likely to repeat the behaviour.
Now, note that I’ve said ‘something good happens’. This something is something good to a dog – not something that we humans think might be good. Which is the primary reason punishment is not a good tool for getting rid of an unwanted behaviour.
We may think that yelling at our dog, or pushing them down from jumping up on you, is unpleasant, but to a dog this may in fact reinforce their behaviour – yes, they got our attention!
The fastest way to reduce and eliminate an undesired behaviour is to not react at all.
But back to the clicker. As I said at the top, a dog is more likely to repeat a behaviour if something good comes out of it. This something could be attention, or play, but to most dogs food is the ultimate reward. Dogs are opportunistic eaters – they will eat whenever they can, so food, for most dogs, is it. And not all food is created equal – but I’ll come back to this point.
So, dog does something good, and is given food to let them know yes, we like that behaviour!
However, you only have around 1 second between the time the dog performs the behaviour you like and when you reward him or her, as otherwise the dog may associate the reward with something completely different. For example, you ask for a sit, the dog obeys and you treat him. What if the dog got up to walk towards you before you got the treat to him? He might now associate ‘sit’ with walking towards you.
Which is where the clicker, finally, comes in.
The clicker is a bridge. It allows you to mark the precise time when the dog performs the behaviour, so there is no confusion about which behaviour you like.
The clicker is a secondary reinforcer. That is, you need to condition the dog to understand that click = food. Once you do this, you’ll be able to click within the second the dog performs the behaviour, and then you’ve got several seconds to fumble in your pocket for the food reward.