Behaviour notes – An Introduction to Clicker Training | Ash Tree Veterinary Centre
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Behaviour notes – An Introduction to Clicker Training

By Ash Tree Vets | 13th December 2017

What is a clicker?

A clicker is a small device that makes a ‘click’ sound when pressed. Clickers come in a variety of shapes but are always small enough to fit in your hand and often have a wrist strap for ease of use. Most clickers have two or more volume settings so that you can adjust the volume of the click to suit your dog’s needs. Some dogs can be a little worried of the click noise to start with so it is advisable to start training on the lowest volume setting, turning the volume up if necessary when the dog is comfortable with the click noise.

Why use a clicker to train my dog?

A clicker can be used to teach your dog almost any behaviour but they are particularly useful when teaching a complex task that needs to be broken down into smaller steps, or for teaching behaviours that don’t necessarily come naturally to most dogs (such as some tricks). Clicker training can also be very effective in helping dogs to overcome fears, or for teaching reactive dogs to remain calm in the presence of something that would usually make them react.

The reason that clicker training is so effective is that the clicker is very PRECISE. It allows the trainer to mark an EXACT action, response or moment in time. A clicker is far more precise than using your voice to mark a behaviour.

A clicker is what is known as a secondary reinforcer. It alerts the dog to the fact that a food reward (primary reinforcer) is on the way. The clicker is used to mark a desired behaviour and lets the dog know that it is doing the right thing and has earned a reward.

Clicker training can be more effective than traditional training as it prevents the dog from becoming confused when a reward is delivered late by the trainer, and so prevents accidental reinforcement of an unwanted or wrong behaviour. The clicker also sounds the same each time (as opposed to our voices which change depending on the mood we are in!) and this consistency makes learning much easier.

How do I get started?

The most important stage of clicker training is teaching your dog the meaning of the clicker. Your dog must learn that the sound of the clicker means that a food reward will follow. Start in a quiet room with no distractions so that it is easier for your dog to focus on you and the clicker. Have a handful of small very tasty treats in your hand. Press the clicker once and immediately give your dog one of the treats. Repeat this sequence many times until your dog starts to expect a treat after the click. You can test if your dog has learnt the meaning of the clicker by waiting for them to look away and then click, if your dog immediately looks back round in anticipation of a reward then he has learnt the meaning of the clicker and you are ready to start using the clicker to train.

Choose an easy behaviour for your first clicker trained behaviour. A hand touch is a great behaviour to start with and can come in useful when teaching other behaviours or tricks. The hand touch simply involves your dog touching your hand with their nose, it is a form of target training. The hand touch can be taught as follows:

  • Hold a treat under your thumb whilst holding the rest of your hand open. Ensure your hand is at a height that your dog can reach without jumping.
  • Wait for your dog to come forward to sniff the treat with their nose and click and reward with the treat as soon as the dog’s nose touches your hand.
  • Repeat this many times until your dog is confidently coming forward and touching your hand (the treat) with his nose.
  • Repeat the same sequence but do not have the treat under your thumb. Wait for your dog to step forward and sniff or touch your hand with their nose and then click and reward.
  • When you dog reliably touches your hand with their nose you can add in a verbal cue such as “touch” or “target”.
  • You can then ask for the behaviour on verbal cue. Ask your dog to “touch” and then click and reward when they do.

This is just one of the many tricks you can teach your dog using the clicker. The possibilities are endless! Remember that clicker training can also be used to help treat fearful or reactive dogs. Always seek help from a behaviourist if you have a fearful or reactive dog that you would like to help, they can guide you on suitable training methods (including clicker training!).

For further advice on clicker training, or to discuss how it may benefit your dog, please contact Laura on 01638 554477.