Back to Basics: How to Get Started Clicker Training

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Dogs LOVE clicker training and playing "The Game"

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.

Getting Started

My favorite kind of clicker

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.

    The sky is the limit when you are clicker training!

  • 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!

There are 28 Comments

  1. Amy Johnson says:

    Minnette,
    I had to go back and try to read all these dog training things..At the time I didn’t have a puppy..now we do..I might try this when its older.

    thanks for all the info.

    Amy Johnson

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  2. mary says:

    i have these three cd and i was doing it with the clicker and did not know if i was doing it right it said to click and treat so i waould click and treay and then he would sit for a treat when he seen the clicker he would get happy and set so i would treat him and when he got down off the cought when i told him i treat him is that the right way or rong way i stop doing it because i want to do it the right way to teach him please let me know thank you it hard for me because i have short turm membeorie

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    Minette Reply:

    Yes, you pair the clicker with the treats when he does what you want him to. The click indicates to him that he has just done what you want him to do. Eventually once he has learned the behavior, like sitting you no longer need to click and treat. Simply rewarding him occasionally for listening to you tell him to sit will encourage him to continue to listen. Then you can move on to other behaviors!

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  3. mary says:

    thank you for the answer my quistion i had so if i was to tell him to get off the cough when he dose i click and treat

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  4. dj says:

    Any suggestions on how to use the clicker training with 2 siberian husky puppies (brothers) 8 weeks old? When I try to separate them to work one on one the other complains. thanks

    [Reply]

    Minette Reply:

    I would separate anyway! They should learn to function alone.

    However you can still click and reward just the one pup that did what he was suppose to or you can get a clicker that has two distinct noises and appropriate one noise for each puppy!

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  5. Pop says:

    We (Daisy, the Min Schnauzer, and I) are in beginning clicker training. I’m sitting quietly on a chair waiting for some kind of favorable behavior. Daisy sits some distance away from me and I immediatley click as the behavior occurs. my question is do i move to her to award the treat or do I show her the treat and call her to me? Do we only work on one behavior during a given session?

    [Reply]

    Minette Reply:

    First you load the clicker by clicking and treating immediately for no given behavior. You must make the clicker mean something to the dog.

    Then you make it a training opportunity by taking out treats and the clicker and letting her show you behaviors.

    You DO NOT have to work on just one behavior you can work on a few. Don’t overwhelm her but if you just work on ONE thing she may get confused or bored. Reward her for anything she does that you will continue to like seeing and HAVE FUN!!

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  6. sidney says:

    When I walk my dog I carry treats and every time she looks up at me I say YES and treat her but I am afraid I am giving her too much food as she is inclined to put on weight,how do I stop giving her treats but still keep her watching me?

    [Reply]

    Minette Reply:

    Wean her off of them by only rewarding her as she HOLDs eye contact on you…then you reward her for longer and longer periods of time where she keeps focus.

    When I take my dog outside and we work on focused heel. I give her the command and we head off then I maybe give her less than half dozen treats at different times throughout the training.

    I also use a ball and no treats sometimes.

    And I make sure the treats are pea sized or smaller! No bigger, because she is on a diet too!

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  7. Cindy says:

    Mason was potty trained. Then I started to walk him every morning and he would poo on our walk. When I did not walk he would poo in the house. Now what do I do. HELP!

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  8. Allison says:

    Mason is telling you that he NEEDS to have several walks for a day or he has no alternative other than to relieve himself in the house. What you might want to clicker train to is to clicker train going to the door and asking to go out.

    Start by loading the clicker. Once he knows clicker and treat go together…then take him to the door you want him to use…wait for a behavior (barking) or (pawing the door) or making a noise at the door, etc. Choose a behavior you can live with and wait for something he does that is like what you want. Clicker that behavior and wait for it to re-occur. Once he is making the right sound, start clickering that and opening the door with both of you going out. Outside, clicker for relieving himself.

    Go inside and try again in about an hour to hour and a half. Also do this about 20 minutes after every meal and after every nap as well as when he first arises in the morning. Soon he will be asking to go out. He will need to have a chance to relieve himself 5-8 times daily if he’s a young dog.
    Be persistant and be consistant.

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  9. Iona & Harold says:

    Hi,
    I have an 8 month/90 lb Great Pyrenees named Harold! I know the breed are known for their independence. When we go to the dog park, he loves it and the other dogs! We don’t need to bring a ball, he runs after the other dogs chasing after the ball!

    I see people walking around the perimeter of the dog park and their dogs play with other dogs and then run to catch up with their people.

    What I’m wondering is, with my big dear Harold, is this a possibility in the future? The moment he gets in the dog park, he’s gone to say hi to everyone! And there I am walking after him

    [Reply]

    Minette Reply:

    Not all dogs care about their owner when other dogs are present, you have to teach him to come and listen under all circumstances and until he does you may not want to reinforce him ignoring you by letting him play.

    [Reply]

  10. Iona & Harols says:

    He does come when called… sometimes! Any suggestions on what we can work on to get him to come on a regular & consistent basis?

    [Reply]

    Minette Reply:

    use a long line!

    [Reply]

  11. marinka says:

    Hi,
    Im using the clicker but my dog never looks at me when i click,but looks toward my pocket( thats where the treats come from )He never makes eye-contact. Does this mean he doens,t make the connection good behavior/clicker but just the connection clicker /food regardles of what i want him to do ?

    Marinka

    [Reply]

    Minette Reply:

    The clicker has nothing to do with eye contact unless you require him to give you focus!

    So teach him to give you eye contact then click, then it won’t matter where he looks after he makes eye contact.

    [Reply]

  12. Hi! What do you mean by the term “load the clicker” ?

    [Reply]

  13. Brittany says:

    I am wondering a few things…what age should you or could you begin this at? I have a german shephard that I am getting once she is 8 weeks old in December and want to teach her things like sit, shake etc. and some obidience things. You said the clicker isn’t used with commands so how does she know what you are trying to teach her how to do? In my mind I would tell her to sit and if she sat you would click and they reward her…I’m a little confused as to how it works…are there any videos?

    [Reply]

  14. hanijurdi says:

    I like all those trainings you are sending to us and iam thankfull for all and if you can Iam working with my rottwillar and i need a videos how to make my dog hold when attack the glove
    thanks

    [Reply]

  15. audrey skrzyniarz says:

    I have a 5 year old rescue black lab. She came to me 7 months ago from the Humane Society after being surrendered by her 4 th owner. The why of this many owners I do not know except she has not been leash trained. She is very sweet and knows her basic commands. The issues are she seems to want to hide her food dish by using her nose to do this on a rug. She seems to wish to eat with no one watching plus I had weeks of trying to find one dry food she would eat without masking it with can dog food. I found Bil-Jac which surprised me she ate. Aside from that, she only wants outdoors play with a Frisbee. She seems not to understand what a ball means just looks at it and walks away. She is my 3rd rescue lab but they all came to me as under a year. She also likes to rub her body along my legs or the bed as I get off t. She does not lick so I am wondering what I need to do or try to add to her life with me. Is it possible that she doesn’t understand this home is forever?

    [Reply]

    Minette Reply:

    Dogs like cats can rub to put their scent on you and mark you, not harmful or a big deal at all

    [Reply]

  16. Navneet says:

    Hi,
    I am in India, and i have adopted a blind 1 month Great Dane puppy. I already have a 2 year old Labrador. This new puppy needs constant touch, so i have to carry him or touch him all the time, i can only move around or do work when he is asleep and my lab is not cooperating at all, she just jumps on the new puppy and bark on him. I need some tips for the blind dog, so that he learns to roam around in the house and serach me when i call him. he feels lost and lonely when we leave him for 2 minutes even and starts screaming. Also pls some tips for potty training. One more thing, how shall i train my lab to accept him as a friend or help the little one.

    Thanks
    Navneet

    [Reply]

    Minette Reply:

    First the dog needs to learn to be independent. If you continue to carry and let him touch you constantly he is going to become dependent, and won’t be able to function without you.

    He doesn’t know sight, so he doesn’t know he is disabled, only you know that and are treating him differently.

    I would work on obedience with all of them especially the other two so that they don’t take advantage and hurt him. But he also needs to learn to be a dog.

    Here is an article to help, and you can also search the site on the right side of the page there is a search bar you can search for potty training tips. http://www.thedogtrainingsecret.com/blog/train-blind-dog/

    [Reply]

  17. Donna says:

    How could I use the clicker to stop my dog barking at other dogs when on the lead,he doesn’t listen as he is barking.He is a 5yr old Cocker spaniel.Thank you.

    [Reply]

    Minette Reply:

    Read this and the articles within http://www.thedogtrainingsecret.com/blog/top-5-reasons-dog-quiet/

    [Reply]

  18. Dwight says:

    It means to click the clicker and then treat the dog, to let him associate the clicker with a reward when he hears it again.

    [Reply]

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