A-Z Guide On Clicker Training Basics
The beauty of clicker training for dogs is that, if done correctly, it solves the age old animal training problem that has been plaguing pet owners for centuries, which is…
You cannot train an animal, without simultaneously training that animal to recall those same emotions he felt when he first learned the behavior. It’s one of the most important laws of Obedience training.
And this isn’t unique to dogs either right?
We humans have all experienced the difference between when somebody tries to train us to do something by making us feel bad, right? Take for example a state trooper, who wishes to train drivers to drive the speed limit on the freeways.
State troopers use PUNISHMENT and FEAR as a way to motivate us to not speed. And if you’ve ever been pulled over, ask yourself, what emotions did you feel as those flashing lights were blinking behind you?
I bet it wasn’t a bunch of happy thoughts.
And that’s by design!
Policeman want you to fear their authority, because they are about the law, and do not care about making you feel bad for breaking that law, as long as it stops your bad behavior.
And, let’s face it, it’s a pretty effective method for changing behavior.
But it comes at an emotional cost of making the person you use punishment on like you less!
In fact, research shows that people who train their animals using punishment, or authoritative fear based techniques, reduce their dog’s loyalty to them!
Dog’s become much more likely to develop aggression based behavior problems.
So the question is, do you want your dog to obey you out of FEAR, where he likes you less? What if there was a way to get your dog to obey that left him actively looking for situations to please you?
The Answer Can be found If you follow a few Clicker Training Basic’s For Creating A Deeper Bond With your dog
Clicker Training Basics: How Does A Clicker Actually Work
The way a clicker works is very simple.
Clicker training for dogs 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. (It’s also perfect if you have a puppy. Because it’s not negatively based, you’ll find that a puppy will learn very quickly that the stimulus of the click means a reward is coming, which makes training your puppy as he get’s older, much easier)
For you this is a training game, but for the dog this is a fun thinking game your dog is learning to EARN his/her own treat rewards.. 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 food treat comes after the click.
You must send a signal to your dog at 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).
You will need:
— A clicker (you can find at any quality pet store)
— High value, soft, small (pea size or similarly small treats) tasty treats. *Large or hard treats often take too long to consume
— A Treat Pouch (to help you more quickly give out treat rewards)
— Your dog
— A quiet place
Go to a quiet place and show him the treats. 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 w/ Positive Reinforcement
You must teach your dog that clicking equals reward. Your dog must simply learn that the sound of the click means a delicious treat reward is on its way. Without loading the clicker, your dog has no understanding of the meaning of the sound. A clicking sound 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 the sound of it!
How To Properly Use a Training Clicker
Before we attempt to capture a behavior with your dog, I recommend that you learn how to use a clicker correctly.
Clicker’s take very precise timing, and it can take a little bit of practice before you get the feel of how to make them work.
For a great game that’ll teach you how to use the clicker, watch this video presentation I gave on stage:
Isn’t that interesting, how just the sound of a well timed click can train a behavior? And remember, the people in that video were only told one thing “The Rule Of The Game Is To Earn Clicks”. And that’s a rule we can teach your dog to do too, through properly loading a clicker to the sound of a click.
Focus On These Two Clicker Training Techniques
While there are several different clicker training techniques you can use to get your dog’s behavior to look the way you want it to, two techniques in particular are a favorite for dog trainers who’s main goal is to create the type of good dog who will obey without having to always be nagged at.
Capturing – The Ultimate Emotion Training Technique
Capturing is the act of “catching an animal in the act of a behavior we want him to do” and training him to do that behavior again on cue.
I first learned about this technique from studying marine mammal trainers work with dolphins and killer whales. Marine mammal trainers, when in the water with huge animals that can harm them, have to rely on getting their animals to WANT to do behaviors with food treats, instead of relying on punishment based methods that FORCE them to do behaviors. It keeps them from being eaten, or dragged to the bottom of the pool and drowned out of a whales frustration. (yes, that’s a thing!)
The great thing about this method is that dog’s do lots of things, in lots of different emotional states right?
If a dog is excited it might jump up or bark.
If it wants attention it might come to you for petting
And if it’s sleepy it might lay down, or yawn.
So by using the basic clicker training technique of capturing, we can turn the random times our dogs do behaviors like these, into mini training sessions that not only make the dog learn to do these types of behaviors again on cue, but with the side benefit of also making them feel those same emotions they felt when they first learned how to do the behavior on cue.
So if we used capturing to teach a dog to bark, and gave that cue, he would do so excitedly, whereas if we gave the cue to have the dog go lay down on his bed, he would become instantly more calm like.
Isn’t that cool!
It’s a tool dog trainers can use to get their dogs to not only do what we want, but FEEL what we want them to feel too.
Are you starting to see why this is so much better then negatively based training sessions!
How To Capture Your Dog’s Behavior With A Clicker
The first behavior I recommend that you capture with your dog is a command that your dog does while he’s calm. While you can chose several of these, one of my favorites is waiting until a dog is tired, and training what I call, the ‘sleepy face’.
The ‘Sleepy Face’ is what I call a dog’s face that looks like it’s about to fall asleep. The dog’s eyes, and facial muscles are relaxed, and it’s one of the perfect behaviors you can capture, because it can be used out in the world as a ‘calm down’ command in the future.
(it’s a great tool to have in your trainer’s toolkit for dog’s who tend to get way to excited)
Here’s a video where I demonstrate how to train this game.
If you train this command, you now have the ability to put your dog in a calm state whenever you want!
Many people who bad mouth clicker training (which are usually people who like to use punishment) complain that you don’t need a clicker, and that you can just use verbal commands to train dogs; and while that is true for some commands, the more advanced type of capturing, like this, requires you to be very precise with the timing of when you click.
For the sleepy face game to be taught correctly, you have to click only during sleepy face. The quick ‘click’ of a clicker tells the dog the instant he does it right, where as the words “good” said by a trainer, take too long.
You have to be quick and precise for this to work. And if you are, you’ll be rewarding with pied piper like abilities for putting your dog into the emotional states you want him to be in.
How to Shape Your Dog’s Behavior With a Clicker
The second training technique that every good dog trainer knows how to do is something called Shaping. Unlike the capturing training technique that catches the dog doing exactly what we want naturally, the shaping technique teaches our dog’s do a behavior that they might not normally do, in baby steps.
Here’s the process:
Decide on a behavior you want your dog to do, like go to his bed.
Break that behavior down into small parts and write them down.
So for example, if we want our dog to go to his bed he has to first:
- Look at his bed
- Take a step towards his bed
- Keep walking towards bed till he’s close
- Actually touch his bed
- Touch his bed with a paw
- Touch his bed with two paws
- Touch his bed with all four paws
- Actually sit down on the bed
- Lay down on his bed
- Stay laying down on his bed for as long as we want
Most pet lovers make the mistake of thinking that behaviors like going to your bed are simple. But do you see how it’s actually 10 completely different small steps that have to be trained?
Once you break the behaviors out into small individual steps like this, what you want to do is simply start clicking and treating your dog every time he does the first step, until he realizes that looking at the bed is what’s giving him the reward.
When you do this one of two things will happen.
- Your dog will automatically start walking towards the bed on accident. Or…
- Your dog will just stand there, and keep looking at the bed, then back at you for a reward.
If your dog does A, then guess what… CAPTURE it, by clicking and then giving what we call a JACKPOT reward.
I like to teach people to give JACKPOT rewards whenever a dog FINALLY figures out a step, or whenever he SKIPS a step ahead of the process on accident. I do this because I want to really reinforce the behavior that I want the dog to do.
But if your dog doesn’t accidentally start to do what you want to do, then that’s ok. My dog was like that too, but watch how I get around that step in this video:
And that’s how you can shape a dog’s behavior to do practically anything you want!
Now of course, after we train the animal we need to put the behavior on cue, but its soooo much easier to put behaviors on cue once the animal already knows the behavior.
For a bunch of tips and tricks for how to take a trained behavior and put it on cue, check out our program that goes into clicker training basics here.
The Benefits of Shaping the “Go To Bed” command
When shaping, I highly recommend that the first behavior you teach your dog is the go to bed command, and I believe this for a very strong reason.
What I have noticed over the last two decades of training animals, is that the behavior you first teach your dog, is the behavior that sticks with them the best in their life.
I have had animals that I’ve trained for other people, then given back to their owners who did no training for a decade, that when I saw that animal 10 years later, could still remember the first behavior I ever taught them, but not the second or third.
I call this the DEFAULT behavior. And from my experience, it seems like you only get to imprint one of these on your dog.
Now of course, if you keep up your training dog’s are remarkable learners and can do many things. But if you tend to be lazy, and you know that about yourself, make sure you AREN’T lazy about the first behavior you use clicker training on to train your dog, because if done like we show you hear, it can and often will become a default behavior that can be a remarkably helpful tool for helping you have a well behaved dog throughout every stage of his life.
And in the case of the ‘go to bed command’ it has three main benefits:
- It contains an element of getting your dog to be calm on a bed
- Because it’s a shaping behavior it trains the dog to start to guess at what you want him to do, which becomes a key driver of your dog’s loyalty towards you in the future.
- It is an AWAY behavior.
What is an AWAY behavior and Why Should You Care?
Most people who train their dogs to do something like “sit” for example, aren’t just training sit.
If you go over to their homes, and you watch them tell their dog’s to sit, their dog’s don’t just sit. Instead, they come from wherever they are in their house, and then sit at their feet. They’re actually doing a come and then sit.
And while this is not a huge deal in the typical household, what this is is only training the dog to come to you to do things.
The problem with this is that to get a behavioral change in your dog, you will often have to ask him to ‘leave the scene’…
If a dog is jumping up on someone at your door, asking him to go to his bed is an away motivated behavior, because you’re asking him to leave something that’s exciting. The same is true for barking at strangers, or stealing food off counters, begging, getting on the sofa etc.
So by training an away motivated behavior first, which is to leave me, and go somewhere else, like a bed; and training that first, as the default behavior… you are training your dog to be MUCH, MUCH, MUCH more likely to obey you in emotionally intense situations in his future.
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.