Clicker training is a conditional training method that guides, not forces, a dog into the desired behavior. All you need to get started is a clicker – a small plastic box that makes a distinct clicking noise when the button is pushed – and an understanding about what makes this simple dog training method work. (I recommend the i-Click for it’s durability and good quality click.)
The simple click might just be a noise to you, but to them it is a strong motivator to listen and react to your commands. The ‘click’ is an excellent communication tool because it tells the dog exactly when they’re doing the right thing.
How Does Clicker Training Work?
Boiled down to its basics, clicker training is these three simple steps:
- Get the behavior.
- Mark the behavior.
- Reinforce the behavior.
Very quickly a Sheltie will associate the sound of the click with something it likes – the reward. Since it wishes to repeat that pleasurable experience, it will repeat the action it was doing when it heard the click.
Teach Clicker Training in Two Easy Steps
Step 1 – Learning by Consequences
If you tell your dog to “sit” and they sit down, they immediately get a click and a treat. This is called operant conditioning. No big surprise here; your dog did what you told them to do because they anticipated a treat. The dog is learning to decide whether to engage in this behavior again or not.
Step 2 – Learning by Association
After a while, when you tell your dog to “sit” and they oblige, they only get a click and no treat. Yet they will still perform the behavior, because in thier mind, a click leads to a treat. The dog will work hard to get that click. This is called classical conditioning. (I.e., Pavlov’s dog.)
What happened? The dog has learned the association between the click and the food. Since it heard the click, the food must be coming – hence, the sit!
An Example: How to Stop Your Sheltie Barking
Shetland Sheepdogs are known first of all for their happy dispositions. But they are also known for their shrill barking that if left unchecked will drive everybody crazy! The following is a great way to stop your Sheltie barking with clicker training. Really!
Step #1 – Train to Bark
Actually encouraging your Sheltie to bark does sound counter-intuitive, but it is proven very effective, so don’t dismiss this without trying it yourself first!
Hold your clicker and some really irresistible treats out of view of your dog. Then, trigger the barking. This can be caused by a friend ringing the doorbell, or talk of a chipmunk out in the yard. We all know Shelties have very ‘quirky’ personalities, so find what triggers your Sheltie… Then, while your dog is barking, click and immediately give the treat.
Step #2 – Train for Silence
As soon as the dog takes the treat, make a stop motion with your hand right in front of their face, and say “quiet.” The dog will usually react with a little sign of surprise or maybe an anxious look. The moment you’ve put your hand in front of them you click and give them a treat.
If your Sheltie starts to bark again, click during a bark and give a treat. As the dog swallows, make the stop cue, say “quiet”, click and then give the treat. Repeat this every time your dog barks.
What’s Going On?
If this method of clicker training to stop barking still makes no sense, consider it from your dog’s perspective. As the “quiet” command starts to work, your dog will want to keep his mouth closed in anticipation of the next click – and the treat.
The new cues will become permanent if you keep the clicker and treats within reach. Reinforce “speak” and “quiet” anytime your Sheltie barks over the next few days. A little effort now can pay off big time for years to come!
Top 3 Rules of Clicker Training:
- ALWAYS treat after a click – even if you’ve accidentally clicked. The dog must have absolute faith in the ‘click means treat’ routine. (Do not let kids have access to the clicker to play with as a toy – EVER. The dog WILL hear it and will be tormented if his treats don’t follow. The clicker is the dog’s toy and no-one else’s!!)
- Only click ONCE. Don’t get excited when the dog does something right and ‘click, click, click, click’ – this takes the consistency out of the ‘click’ and treat routine. One click is enough.
- Keep training sessions short and sweet, preferably around five minutes. They should be fun for both of you; fun for the dog because they are getting lots of treats and using their brain, and fun for you because it is far easier to train them than you ever imagined! Just keep the sessions short.
The ultimate goal of clicker training is to have a well trained, well behaved pet. This means your dog always reacts to your commands out of habit & a desire to please you.
How to Begin Clicker Training
First you need a clicker which creates the distinctive & consistent sound to which your dog will react during training. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I recommend the i-Click for it’s good quality click.
Second, you’ll need very small, tidy treats. For example, a treat the size of a Cheerio is best for an average sized dog.
Third, you should read up about clicker training from an expert so you get it right. There are some good resources on the internet dedicated to clicker training, however Clicker Training by Canis is a complete guide for beginners.
Clicker Training: The 4 Secrets to Become a Supertrainer.
Clicker Training is a 213-page downloadable book by Norwegian dog trainers Morten Egtvedt and Cecilie Koeste. They are top competitors in both obedience and in tracking as well as teach at ClickerExpo, the premier clicker training conference.
Fortunately, for those not living in the Nordic countries and not able to travel to a ClickerExpo event, Morten and Cecilie have made their clicker training book (a best seller in Nordic countries, but not available in English) available as a downloadable ebook in English.
The authors have put together a great resource which covers in detail the history, principles, theory and practical application of clicker training techniques. They have found the right balance between educating the reader and also providing clear and concise step-by-step instruction.
Detailed Map to a Trained Dog
One challenge of clicker training is laying out a plan of attack, keeping track of your successes and where you can pick up next time. This book lays out a detailed, step-by-step map you can follow for teaching 30 behaviors. These include the basics like:
- Loose-leash walking
- Crate training
- Polite greetings
But then you also get maps for fun like “turn off the lights” and “getting a soda from the fridge”. While these are certain to impress friends and neighbors, the maps for these are most valuable for teaching how to think creatively when clicker training.
If you buy the e-book, you also get access to 5 videos showing the authors training some of the advanced behaviors. It’s helpful to see what you’ve been reading about in action. Especially good for visual learners.
There is so much information in this book that it is clear that Morten and Cecilie are experts in the field. They were early adopters of the clicker method, learned the art from Karen Pryor herself and have been training animals for over 18 years. Click here to visit their website for free training videos and to download their bestselling book.