From dogs and cats to horses and dolphins, clicker training has been used as a successful and highly effective training technique for decades across the animal world. Whether you’re trying to teach simple commands or complex performance routines, this training method can expedite the communication process between you and your pet in a positive and fun way, especially if you have a food-motivated pet! We’ve personally been using it for years with our dogs and find that they usually love working for the click.
Keep reading to learn what clicker training is, how it works, and who invented it. We also examine the pros and cons and the age you can start the training. Let’s dive in!
What Is Clicker Training?
Clicker training for pets, also known as marker training, is a positive reinforcement training method. It uses a clicker to mark exactly when your dog or cat performs the desired behavior. When it hears the click, it will associate it with a positive outcome, such as a treat or praise. This encourages it to repeat the desired behavior in the future. With practice, they can learn just about any command.
You can purchase a pet training clicker online or get one from your local pet store. Some people use a whistle or snap their fingers instead of using a clicker. You can even use a vocal cue, such as “Yes!” to mark desired behaviors. But the same concept applies to whichever sound you use. For deaf animals, you can even use a visual cue such as a hand signal or flashlight.
It’s also helpful to teach complex behaviors. Even complicated commands can be constructed by slowly building up components of the task. You can also “capture” things your pet naturally does and teach them to do them on cue for a reward. Furthermore, you can then teach them that they only get a reward when the cue is given, resulting in many animals stopping a behavior unless cued. For example, many people are able to teach their dogs to stop barking by attaching the bark to a cue.
Clicker training is an effective way to train dogs and cats of all breeds, as well as other animals. Some people have even trained their goldfish! While a goldfish probably won’t do as complex tasks as, say, a dog, we’re confident that your pet is smart enough to learn clicker training.
Who Invented Clicker Training?
Karen Pryor invented pet clicker training in the 1960s. She’s an American author, animal trainer, and dolphin researcher. Best known for her work on the development of the clicker training method, she was inspired by the work of B.F. Skinner, a psychologist who studied operant conditioning. It’s a type of learning in which an animal learns to associate a behavior with a consequence. In clicker training, the consequence is the sound from the clicker.
Is Clicker Training Good for Dogs?
Clicker training is generally good for dogs. It provides positive reinforcement, and the clicker method bridges a behavior and a reinforcer, such as a treat. The behavior is accomplished by luring the dog with the noise, shaping it with the treat, and capturing the good behavior with that reward. The clicker and treats should slowly be removed after the dog learns to complete the behavior with a command only.
Many professionals recommend clicker training because its reward system makes teaching a game. Dogs love to play, so if their learning is a game, it’s more likely for them to learn quicker. It’s also clearly telling your pup which behavior it’s being rewarded for. There’s no confusion.
Another pro is that it is primarily positive reinforcement rather than negative enforcement. Studies have shown that training with negative reinforcement techniques “compromises the welfare of companion dogs both within and outside the training context.” These dogs display tense behaviors like licking and yawning during and outside of training sessions, as well as release more of the stress-indicative hormone cortisol. This shows that these dogs likely live in fear and worry of punishment for a misstep. Reward-based training dogs, conversely, showed no release of cortisol in their study.
Additionally, dogs typically respond well to clicker training. It’s a good way to teach a variety of commands, including sit, stay, come, roll over, etc. When there are other people around, it’s also a subtle yet effective way to keep your dog obedient and to stop behaviors such as jumping on guests.
Clicker training is also effective for cats. Watch this cat training video from Jackson Galaxy to learn more.
Some critics of clicker training argue that if it’s not done right, the dog may develop a lower drive for the reward. This is especially true when there’s a lack of consistency from the trainer (you). Marker or clicker training can be a bit tricky for the trainer to learn. You need to know how to build on behaviors properly, practice, and be very focused and consistent with your click/mark and reward.
Also, since it is a reward-based technique, there may also be the risk of the pet losing interest in performing commands if they realize you’re not carrying treats. Moving from constant treats to random treats or pure praise may not be enough of an incentive for some pets. Conversely, if you’re pet isn’t particularly motivated by treats or toys, this method may not hold their interest for long.
Therefore, casual treat and praise training is considered more convenient to some. However, this training method can be less precise than a clicker, as marking the exact moment of a desired behavior can be difficult. This can lead to your dog learning the wrong behavior or not learning the behavior at all.
How Do You Train a Dog To Use a Clicker?
To start clicker training, say your pet’s name, use the clicker when they look at you in response, and immediately give them a treat. Do this several times so that your dog learns to associate the click with treats. Once it understands the click means a good thing is coming, you can start using it to mark desired behaviors. For example, if you want your dog to sit, click the clicker the moment its rear is on the ground. Then, give it a treat. Repeat this process over and over again until your dog is consistently sitting when you click.
Remember to be quick and consistent with the click! Also, try to be quick with the treat. This makes the association with good behavior even stronger and therefore helps your pet learn it faster.
Start with easy behaviors and any behaviors they already know on cue. This teaches them the foundation of clicker training and what the mark means. Teaching them to give you their attention when you say their name is a great setup to nearly every trick in the book. We like to introduce the marker word at the beginning as well, saying “Yes!” at each click. This way, if you don’t have your clicker on you when they perform a good behavior, they still understand the marker reinforcement.
Once your dog has mastered the basics of clicker training, you can start working on more complex behaviors. Teach it tricks, to stay, hand targets, and more by using the clicker.
Just be sure to introduce new behaviors by breaking them into small steps. For example, if you want to teach your dog to stay and come when called, first click and treat them for just looking at you. Then, you would click and treat them for looking at you and taking a step towards you. And so on.
Once it can do each step of the behavior reliably, you can start putting them together. Be patient and consistent, and your dog will eventually learn the new behavior, but it takes practice. It’s also important to use the same clicker sound.
Keep training sessions short and fun. If your dog gets bored or frustrated, take a break or backtrack to the last successful command and end the session on a good note.
What Treats Should You Use for Clicker Training?
As you might imagine, any reward-based training method requires lots of treats. Before you start working with big dog biscuits, you’ll want to take into consideration the amount, size, and caloric implications of your training treats. Since you’ll likely be handing out many during each session, you’re going to want small treats. In fact, you want to figure out what the smallest amount your pet will work for. This way, when they do something tremendous, you can increase the amount for a bigger reward.
Many pet stores will sell bags of smaller “training treats.” However, we’ve found that many of these are still way too big for a 30+ treat training session. We frequently break them into smaller pieces to get more mileage out of a single bag and save our dogs some unnecessary calories.
Some other treats we’ve found that work well is their kibble and Cheerios cereal. Kibble is convenient because you typically have a lot on hand. Also, you can comfortably feed them an entire meal’s worth if you do a training session at mealtime. Now, just be warned that some dogs will not work for bits of their kibble, as it is just too boring for them. If they don’t seem motivated by that, try something else. Additionally, most dogs will still expect something in their bowl to count as their meal.
As long as your dog doesn’t have allergies to anything in them, Cheerios are fun, crunchy, low-calorie treats that many dogs love. Hint: If you put them in a baggy with some meaty-flavored treats, they absorb the smell and become even more doggy-desirable!
What Age Should You Start Clicker Training?
You can start clicker training your puppy as young as four weeks old. The sooner you start training a pet, the easier it will be. But remember, consistency is key.
You can also introduce clicker training to older dogs or cats at any time. If you rescued a pet of any age, start training and getting them in a routine as soon as possible. Rescues may need more time to adjust depending on their history, any medical conditions, and age. But it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks.
Pro Tip: Clicker training can help you teach your newly adopted dog its new name in minutes! Our adopted dog, Luna, learned her new name in a short 5-minute clicker session.
What Can You Teach Using Clicker Training?
You can teach your pet almost anything using a clicker! We use it to teach names, sit, stay, come, go, spin, and more. It’s been a revolutionary technique for our pups.
Service dog trainers also use it. It’s helpful when the dog goes on to its owner, as it’s a consistent method. It even works for other animals, such as horses, cats, and marine animals.
What Bad Behaviors Can Clicker Training Dogs Stop?
Clicker training can help you stop your dog’s barking, jumping, digging, or biting. It’s an effective way to put an end to bad behaviors. However, it takes a little more knowledge of the technique to stop a behavior than to start it and a whole lot of consistency. This is because there are several ways to approach the deconstruction of a behavior, and it all depends on you knowing your dog and anticipating when the behavior is going to happen.
For example, this is Karen Pryor’s advice on training your dog not to bark. It begins with understanding why they are barking, managing the environment, managing the reinforcement of the bark, and then directing them to another more desirable behavior that gets their needs met in another way.
If we haven’t said it enough, be consistent. Also, remain patient and positive. Your calmness will help turn your dog’s bad behaviors into good ones.
Is Clicker Training Better Than Using Treats?
Clicker training and treat training are both effective ways to train dogs, but they have different advantages and disadvantages. A clicker or marker is usually more precise and consistent than treats alone. It allows you to mark the exact moment your dog performs the desired behavior. So, it’s helpful when teaching complex behaviors or for pups easily distracted by treats.
Ultimately, the best way to train your dog is the way that works best for you and your dog. We are huge advocates of positive reinforcement, which has been proven to keep your dog happier and more trusting of you. Training is all about developing your relationship and communication channels with your dog, and clicker training is our favorite method so far for precise and effective teaching of desired behaviors. If you’re like us, you’ll likely have fun while you’re doing it, too!
Have you done clicker training? Share your experience in the comments below.
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