Clicker Training for Lasting Results

Corin with rapt attention Clicker Training is the training method of choice for most top trainers and dog handlers. You can actually teach your dog a new action, trick or behavior in as little as ten minutes using a child's clicker toy and a few dog treats.

The secret of successful clicker training is in the timing. Anyone can learn to do it, and make it work quickly. Because it is a hands-off training method there is no stress for handler or dog. Many of us are brought up in a culture of punishment and blame, and we carry this over into our relationship with our dogs.

But just "think toddler". You don't continually tell off a baby for her bungled attempts to pick things up, put food in her mouth, crawl, or walk. You encourage and reward every little move she makes.

We expect an awful lot of our dogs - and they are indeed very clever! - but they are still simple souls with a very small vocabulary compared to ours. (There's a famous dog with a vocabulary of 300 words - but he is an exception.) They don't come ready-programmed. We have to teach them, and the way dogs learn best is by reading our body language, and by trying things.

This is how clicker training works: by encouraging every little move which takes you nearer the behaviour you want, you get there little by little - hence the term "shaping a behaviour". And the whole process is very enjoyable for both dog and handler.

But why on earth is it called "clicker training"?

You remember those little clicky toys - sometimes called crickets - where depressing the metal tongue with your thumb causes a click-clack guaranteed to infuriate any grown-up, given time? The click sound tells your dog - emotionlessly and precisely - that he has done the right thing and a treat is on its way.

First of all you teach your dog what clicker training means - and what it means is food! Every time you click the clicker, it acts as a marker that a treat has been earned.

For some advice on what to use as treats for clicker training, see Puppy Training or visit Karen Pryor's where Clicker Training all started.

Here's how it works ...

When you start with a little puppy, you can just "click and treat" for several treats. You'll find that very soon your puppy watches you - with rapt attention - as soon as he hears you take it out of your pocket!

Now you can simply lure, capture, or shape a behaviour, click your clicker and be ready to give your dog a treat whenever he makes any move in the right direction.

It's important that you use no commands at this stage of developing the behaviour. The beauty of clicker training is that it avoids all the nagging, poking and prodding, and shouting "SIT SIT SIT SIT!" You needn't maintain a stony silence though. Occasional encouraging noises and questions ("Do you want a treat?" or "What are you going to do for this?" for instance) will keep your dog's interest while he puzzles out what he's meant to do.

And when he's producing the action reasonably quickly every time, you can add a vocal cue just before he's about to do it.

Once you have the action you want, and your dog will do it whenever you ask, you can put him on a variable schedule of reinforcement - that is to say, sometimes he gets a treat and sometimes he doesn't. You can choose to reward only the very smartest and best sits, for instance, thereby upping the standard.

Clicker training works by reinforcing the behaviour you want and, where possible, totally ignoring the behaviour you don't want. The dog obliges because he wants to - remember that radio station WIIfm in Training your Dog? The clicker also serves as an instant but emotion-free marker that he has done the right thing.

Clicker Training is effectively what those dolphin trainers use to get their animals to leap in the air and through hoops, only they use a whistle which is easier for the dolphins to hear in the water.

Can you see how this system could be useful in getting the behaviour you want from your children, your spouse, your workmates - as well as your dog? Though I think for human trainees you would need to call it "Encouragement Training" and not "Clicker Training"! To get the background and philosophy behind this hands-off method of training, you will do best to read Don't Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor, the dolphin-trainer who formulated this method of training. It gives much food for thought, with loads of case studies and analysis.

For more practical application and for step-by-step training for dogs, see Click for Joy! by Melissa Alexander, a well-respected trainer who knows just how to get the results you want. See more books in Resources.

Incidentally, clicker training is the method I use to get rapid housetraining in a new pup.

Advanced Clicker Training

Once you have the basics you can have endless fun with low-pressure clicker training. You can work on competition-standard Obedience; you can amuse your dog, yourself, friends, family and passers-by with a few dog tricks; or you can simply make life easier at home.

How handy to have someone to shut the door behind you, bring you your car-keys, carry your bag, pick up anything you've dropped ... I taught all these tasks to my Border Collie Jake (that's him on the banner). Some of them took as little as twenty minutes to teach several years ago, and he does them now without treats - his reward is simply the fun of it!

There are various training aids you can use to make clicker training easier. One is the target stick.Your dog learns to follow the stick closely with his nose, allowing you to get him to stand, lie down, take a bow, spin, and so on. A natty bag on your belt will carry all your treats and your clicker.

See Classes for news of Good for Dogs! Clickertraining courses.