Clicker Training - What Is It?

So many pet dog owners do not understand “clicker training” and how it works, they wrongly think it’s:

  • Just a gimmick
  • Not positive or reward based training
  • That if they use a clicker for training, they will have to for the rest of the dog’s life.
  • A clicker is an “attention getter”.

Clicker training is a “marker” – it tells the animal at the time they hear it “that was correct”. Anything can become a marker if introduced properly, a clicker, a word, a whistle etc. But firstly the dog has to have the marker paired with a small food treat to make the association when hearing the marker that it will get a reward, we call this “priming the marker”. So, in the case of the clicker, we click & give a small food treat, we repeat this several times until we see the dog has made the association of the pairing; click=treat. Now you can use it for training.

You must have good timing when training, no matter what method you use. So, for example, if I was training a dog a new command, let’s say to lay down on command and I was not using any marker, once the dog is in the down position, I would need to get my treat and give it – but oh dear the dog has got up from the down, so that’s not going to work! Now I have to have the treat in my hand, so the moment the dog lays down, I can deliver the treat within 2 seconds. The dog will now learn the down position, but it will only obey if I have a treat in my hand, if I don’t, the dog will ignore me – sound familiar? Congratulations you are now bribery training and your dog will only respond if it sees/smells treats in your hand!

Marker training when done correctly stops you from bribery training. If we taught the dog to lay down and if using a clicker, clicked the moment the dog did so, the dog would know it had done the right thing as the clicker marked the behaviour you wanted (down) and you now get your treat and give it (you must never click without giving a treat) but you do not have the treat in your hand. Once the dog has learnt the down position in different locations with varying distractions, you phase the clicker out for that exercise and the dog obeys without having to see/smell the treat in your hand.

So, you don’t like clickers because they seem gimmicky, and you don’t want to say “Yes!” because it sounds silly. Frankly, I don’t care what sound you use as a marker, but if you’re going to be effective, you MUST have great timing. You will never have great timing with just the treat in your pocket.

The point of a clicker (or “yes!” or a whistle or whatever) is that you have a unique sound that marks the moment of your dog’s brilliance. That sound has been consistently paired with rewards so that the moment your dog hears it, the reward centres of the brain start churning out dopamine, which feels good. So, even if you are caught digging around in the pocket of your jeans for the treat, you’ve still captured the behaviour the instant it happened, increasing the chance that your dog will do it again next time.

Why not just use “good dog/boy/girl?” Well, because it’s slower but, more importantly, you probably don’t give your dog a food reward after saying it, so it doesn’t have the association needed to have that feel good effect. Worse, if you say “Good boy” before patting your dog on the head, which most dogs hate, you could be using a marker that has a bad association.

So marker training is so much more effective than just treat training alone, what’s more dogs & puppies love it and can’t wait to learn new things with you, fostering an even better relationship with you than they already have.