I love clicker training. I find it fun, and so do my dogs. My dogs learn new behaviors very quickly, they are well mannered and a pleasure to take everywhere with me (well, except Tycho, of course, my reactive guy). Best of all, we have a very strong relationship based on mutual trust and respect. I thank the method of clicker training for getting me such a happy and fulfilling relationship with my dogs.
Imagine me asking you what you want from your dogs. If you’re like many people, you’ll most likely say something like “I don’t want him to jump up on my visitors” or “I don’t want him to pull on the lead”. Well, if you look carefully you’ve just told me two things you DON’T want your dog to do. That’s a very negative outlook, and I’d rather you focus on what you DO want from your dog: you want him to keep all four paws on the ground and you want him to walk on a loose leash. And this is where clicker training comes in. Instead of teaching your dog what you don’t like, and punishing him for not understanding you, you teach instead by positive association, and that means LOTS of REWARDS for good behavior.
Clicker training works on the principle that behaviors that dogs find pleasurable are behaviors that they’ll repeat. You’re probably thinking you’d like to learn in the same way! We all remember those days in school when our teachers praised us, and those days when they rebuked us. When we got praised we felt all warm inside, and tried to do those good things again. But when we got rebuked, we sort of shut down inside, and felt really small and silly. But often we didn’t really understand what we had done wrong, and so we did nothing.
So a clicker is small plastic box that encloses a metal strip that you hold in your hand. I’ve included a picture of one here. When you depress the little metal strip with your thumb it makes a “click-clack” sound. We use this sound to communicate to the dog that the behavior they’ve just performed is what they will get rewarded for. And so we reinforce the dog for his good behavior.
Clicker training a new behavior such as “sit” or “down” or “roll over” generally follows a three–step process. Firstly, we watch for the behavior to happen (there are a number of ways to make this happen, but that’s a subject for another blog). Secondly, in the instant that the behavior happens, we mark the behavior with the click sound, and finally we reward the dog with a small food treat or toy or other activity that the dog really likes. This really simple method teaches the dogs, by association, that they’ve just done something wonderful that we liked, and as a consequence they’ll get a reward for that. Dogs are extraordinarily good at this type of learning (so are humans, by the way).
You may have some questions for me now:
Why use the click sound? Why not use your voice with praise like “Yes” or “Good dog”? Well, the clicker is a much more consistent sound, easily heard, and never laden with emotion. You’ve probably said “yessss” when you were being sarcastic, or “yes!” in a very happy tone, or “YES” when you were shouting in a disgusted tone, and a hundred other ways of saying “yes”. Also, by the time we’ve said “yes” or “good dog”, the behavior could have been over already for a second or more. Our brains seem to be much faster in sending a signal to our fingers than sending a word to utter to our vocal chords. We also use our voices all the time with our dogs, whereas the clicker is only used during training sessions.
And, why not just reward the dog straightaway instead of using the clicker? Well, you may be fumbling with the strings on your treat pouch, or you’re crouched on the ground, and can’t get your hand into your pocket quickly enough to haul out a treat. In either case, that time delay between the behavior and the reward could easily confuse your dog, and they won’t be sure exactly what behavior you rewarded them for.
So the clicker is a really “clean” tool that you use in the same instant the behavior occurs, and it makes communication rock solid between you and your dog in that learning environment. That is why I love clicker training so much!
Well, I’ve already taken up much of your time with this long blog. But I get so enthusiastic about this science-based training method, that I can’t help myself! Any questions, please feel free to email me, and I’d be very happy to respond.