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How to start clicker training dogs

By BBC Maestro

The clicker dog training method is a clear and effective way to help your dog associate their actions with a reward. If a dog is rewarded for a behaviour, they’re more likely to do it again (and we humans can also relate to that). 

Positive reinforcement training works by highlighting and rewarding a desirable behaviour, so the dog learns exactly what they did right. If we’re rewarded for doing something, we’re more likely to do it again.

If you’ve never used one before, how to start clicker training dogs might feel a bit daunting – do we really want to introduce gadgetry to our lessons? However, these simple little devices are super-easy to use, and are an excellent way to mark positive behaviour. In this article, we’ll take you through some clicker training basics, and you’ll soon be clicking away like a pro.

What is clicker training?

Clicker training is also known as ‘mark and reward’. It’s a reward-based training method using a small plastic device, which makes an audible click. When a clicker-trained dog hears that sound, they know they’ve been a good boy or girl.  Expert Steve Mann is a fan of using clickers during his behaviour shaping lessons, and demonstrates how he uses them in his BBC Maestro dog training course.

The clicker is an effective way of ‘marking’. Behaviour shaping is a dog training method that reinforces every small, incremental step towards the desired outcome by marking it. For example, if you’re training your dog to lie on their bed, you start by marking and rewarding when they simply look in the direction of the bed. Carry on marking until the dog finally lies down on their bed.

One way of marking is to say “Good!” every time a positive step is made. However, the clicker is much quicker and more precise. This enables your dog to learn exactly what they were doing that got them the tasty treat. Steve comments:

“The clicker is, for me, an ideal way to mark the correct behaviour; it is very precise, clear and reliable.”

If you need an illustration of how important speed and timing are when it comes to dog training, imagine an agility course. Your aim is to get your dog to jump through the hoop and towards the finish line, and you need to be able to mark the exact moment that they leap through the hoop. That level of timing is far easier to achieve with a quick button press than a shout.

The clicker itself is a pocket-sized plastic device with a button – it’s that basic. You can pick them up easily and for very little money.

Is clicker training good for dogs?

If you’re looking for ways to mentally stimulate your clever dog, clicker training is perfect. A clicker session makes a great mental workout because it’s encouraging your dog to make their own associations. Every time they hear that click, the dog has to work out which positive behaviour is being marked, and make their own connections. This makes the training more ingrained because your pooch has had to problem solve.

There aren’t many verbal cues in this training method, so the dog is constantly having to think for themselves. As Steve says, you can almost see their mental cogs turning during clicker training! The lack of verbal cues from you avoids any vocal confusion – after all, we spend a lot of time telling our pets how good they are, so it’s all too easy to confuse marking with praise.

How to introduce the clicker

Start clicker training by teaching the dog what that little sound means. Pick a time when it’s quiet and your dog’s in a receptive mood. Ideally, they’re also hungry. Simply click, then immediately treat. Click then treat. Click then treat, and so on until your dog starts to anticipate the treat. They’re now associating the click with a reward and you’re ready to begin clicker training.

You also need to spend a bit of time on your own training. Steve advises owners to “practise with your clicker, because the timing of the click is everything here.” For example, he practises by clicking every time a vehicle goes past a certain lamppost. That’s what you’re after: quick reflexes and good timing. Like your pooch, you’ll soon get the hang of it.

Clicker train basic commands

You can use the click technique for so many training exercises. Let’s take a closer look at Steve’s bed training example. Your goal is to get your dog to lie down on their bed. You’ll use the cue words “Bed” and “Down”, but at first, you’re simply using clicks and treats.

  1. Place their bed a few metres away from your dog and stand with them. You’re primed with your clicker and a generous amount of treats.
  2. Act natural, and wait for the dog to look towards the bed. As soon as they do, click, then reward with a treat.
  3. Keep repeating until your dog has made the connection between looking at the bed, hearing the click and getting a treat.
  4. Now slow it down a bit. Introduce the click if the dog moves towards of the bed. They’ll soon associate clicks and treats with moving in a certain direction.
  5. This bit needs patience: let the dog gradually walk closer and closer to the bed, clicking and rewarding as you go. Don’t be tempted to push this along by introducing any commands yet.
  6. Your clever pooch will be processing this super-quickly by now, and will start to put a paw or two on the bed. Click and reward.
  7. You can now introduce a command: “Bed”. When they stand on the bed, click and reward.
  8. After a few cycles of bed, click and treat, start to extend the period between bed and click. This will naturally encourage the dog to think about getting comfy there.
    When they settle into a down position, reinforce with “Down”, followed by a quick click, a treat, and a lot of praise.So, your pup has pieced together the puzzle, worked out for themselves which behaviours were the right ones and learned to lie on the bed. That’s worth celebrating.

You can use this technique for all sorts of training sessions, from a simple Sit to tricks like Play Dead. Use the speed of your clicker to your advantage. For example, if your dog jumps up when visitors come to the door, you can clicker train them to Sit when the doorbell goes.

The bell goes, you ask your dog to Sit, then quickly click before their bum lifts off the floor again. Your clever pet will be able to pinpoint the exact moment they heard the click, and work out that they are being rewarded for sitting. It’s an effective way of teaching them, through positive reinforcement, not to immediately dive on any visitors.

How to clicker train a puppy

You can start clicker training a puppy as soon as their training begins. That sharp click is a clear and precise way to reinforce positive behaviours in little pups, and they’ll soon learn which behaviours bring tasty treats. When the puppy has grasped an action from start to finish, then you can introduce a cue word.

Note for the trainers: finding the exact time to mark the good behaviour with a click can be tricky, as puppies are such fast movers (this is great mental exercise for you, too…).

You can also use clicker training to reward your puppy outside training sessions. For example, if they go and lie down on their bed calmly without any prompting, give them a click and reward them with a treat. By introducing the clicker at this early stage, you have an effective way to encourage your pup to take ownership of their understanding and learning.

To find out more about clicker training and other techniques, take a look at dog trainer Steve Mann’s BBC Maestro course. He covers everything from your puppy’s first session to sophisticated pole work for more experienced dogs. The course is packed with helpful tips and tricks to help you build a happier life for you and your dog.

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