Back to Basics: How to Get Started Clicker Training
I often forget that there are readers at all levels of dog training. I refer to positive reinforcement training, clicker training, dominance or other situations and too often I expect prior knowledge. But I realize it never hurts to reiterate and go back to square one and explain some of the basics.
Clicker training is positive reinforcement training based on operant conditioning (remember Pavlov and his drooling dog?). Clicker training depends on reinforcers, which may be anything the dog likes or wants i.e. food, petting, toys, play etc. presented with an appropriately timed signal in such a way that information is communicated between dog and trainer.
For you this is a training game, but for the dog this is a thinking game your dog is learning to EARN his/her own treats. There is no set recipe for developing behaviors with the clicker and treats, each session with each dog will be different, you will have to learn to “wing it” and use your imagination to shape the behaviors you continue to want to see.
Clicker training is all about TIMING. Your click “marks” the behavior you want, it does not happen before or after the behavior, it comes during the behavior, and the treat comes after the click. You must capture the exact moment your dog is doing what you want him to do. Only click once, if you click over and over the animal has no idea which click was meaningful. A clicker in the wrong hands can be very confusing (so don’t let your kids or anyone else “play” with the clicker).
Your First Game
In order to perfect your timing it is best to practice by yourself, so that you don’t confuse your dog. Grab your clicker and a rubber ball and head off to a secluded room. Bounce the ball and when the ball hits the ground, click. The bounce and the click should be synonymous. Next throw it in the air and click when it is at it’s highest point. Finally employ a friend or family member to bounce and throw for you so there is not as much anticipation.
If you are lucky enough to find a willing human participant, see if you can clicker train them to do something they would not necessarily normally do (but nothing embarrassing please). Reward them with chocolate or a favorite treat but remind them, they have to offer you behaviors in order for you to reward them (they can’t just stand there). Click for any behavior that might lead to your ultimate goal.
You will need:
- A clicker (you can find at any quality pet store)
- High value, soft, small (pea size or smaller) treats. *Large or hard treats often take too long to consume
- Your dog
- A quiet place
Go to your dog, show him the treats and go to a quiet place. In the beginning of training, you should be as free from distractions as possible because you are both learning the rules of the game.
The first task is simple: Load the Clicker
You must teach your dog that clicking equals reward. Your dog must simply learn that the sound of the click means a delicious treat is on its way. Without loading the clicker, your dog has no understanding of the meaning of the sound. Clicking means nothing to a dog until you teach him the meaning.
That is one of the most common misconceptions I see, people think the clicker is magical and is genetically designed to have an important meaning to your dog. Nope, it can even startle or scare some dogs, until they understand it’s meaning.
Remember back to Pavlov and his dog; in the beginning of the experiment the bell prior to eating had no significance, but after several feedings the bell became a precursor to food and soon just the sound of the bell elicited drool proving that the bell equaled food to the dog.
The biggest misconception is that clicker training means “FOOD”, the animal is not working for food it is working for the click, the sound of the click is the signal that brings about a great performance. After the dog has learned to understand what behavior you want, how to do it and when to do it you can replace the click with a word and the food with praise or a pat.
You will know when you have loaded the clicker well enough because your dog’s eyes will light up and he will come running when he hears it!
Next: Begin The GAME
Once your dog understands that the clicker means he has done something right and a reward is coming you can begin to play the clicker game with him.
- Take him to a secluded room with your treats and just sit and wait.
- See what behaviors he offers you.
- Click if he does something you like.
- Refrain from yelling if he does something you don’t like, just don’t click.
- Don’t order your dog around; clicker training is not command based. Sit quietly and wait no commands!
- Ignore simple naughty behaviors, and realize he has to offer you a number of behaviors while playing this game.
- Keep raising your goal. As soon as you have a good response, start asking for more (wait until the dog stays a little longer, comes a little further or sits a little faster)
- If you are not making progress you are probably clicking too late! Accurate timing is crucial!
Practice, practice, practice and keep your eye out for more on Clicker Training!