How to clicker train a dog

How to Clicker Train a Dog 101

Have you wondered how to clicker train a dog?

All you need is a clicker, a little plastic box that makes a “click” sound and is readily available in pet stores or online, and some treats or another high-value reward. Teach your dog that the click means he did something right, and then start working on some new behaviors.

I grew up training and showing dogs, and use a variety of training methods and tools. I like clicker training because using a clicker makes it very clear to my dogs that we are learning something new and puts them in training mode. They like it because the click is clear and consistent, and means a tasty treat is on its way!

Tricks are my absolute favorite things to train using a clicker, but you are only limited by your imagination. The clicker can be used to train pretty much anything from household manners to complex routines for shows and competitions.

Let’s get into what clicker training is, how it works, and how to get started.

What is clicker training?

Clicker training is a training method first made famous by Karen Pryor. She used whistles to train dolphins to voluntarily perform a wide variety of behaviors in the 1960s, and the rest is history!

Clicker training is based on a theory called operant conditioning, developed by B.F. Skinner. In his studies, Skinner discovered that behaviors that are reinforced are more likely to be repeated, while those that are not reinforced are less likely to be repeated.

For example, if you give your dog a cookie every time he touches your hand with his nose and never when he touches your hand with his paw, he will choose to use his nose so he can get the cookie.

Why a clicker?

You might be thinking, ok, so when my dog does something I like I tell him he’s good and give him a treat. Why would I need to add a clicker to that?

Humans are slow. And our voices are inconsistent. You want your dog to know that he is doing the right thing the instant it happens, and to not have any doubt. Getting a treat from your hand or pocket to your dog’s mouth takes time, and your dog may be doing something else by the time he receives the reward.

And while we might think that we say, “Yes!” the same way every time, we don’t. Sometimes we stretch it out a little. Sometimes we say it louder or softer, and sometimes we’re late.

A clicker eliminates most of these issues and the resulting confusion. The click is the same every time, so as long as your dog knows that a click is equivalent to you saying, “Yes!” he will know that each click means he did something right. Pressing that little button in your hand is also very quick and easy to do, so you can mark the exact moment when your dog has earned his reward.

The clicker also becomes a signal to your dog that it is training time. My dogs go bonkers when I pick up a clicker, and start offering all kinds of behaviors as they try to guess what we are learning today. If your dog is unenthusiastic about something, you can use the clicker to help build motivation.

How to clicker train your dog

Step 1: Choose the right reward

Rewards mean a lot more to your dog if it is something he really likes. Many dogs love treats, but others prefer toys. Find a treat (or several) that your dog gets really excited about, or a favorite toy. Some dogs might think plain biscuits are the cat’s pajamas, but others might prefer some cut up cooked hotdogs or a plain boiled chicken breast.

To add even more value, reserve these special rewards for training time – that will be the only time when your dog gets that treat or toy.

Step 2: Introduce the clicker

This is also called “loading” or “charging” the clicker. Remember, your dog doesn’t come pre-programmed to know that a click means he’s a good dog!

Once you are ready with your reward and clicker, click and immediately give a reward. Repeat several times. Your dog does not need to be doing anything special, he just needs to be close enough for you to deliver the reward. He should quickly start to anticipate the reward when he hears the click. This usually happens pretty quickly, but might take a couple training sessions.

To test that he knows what the click means, wait until he isn’t paying attention and then click. If he whips around to claim his prize, your clicker is loaded!

Step 3: Get the behavior

There are several ways to teach a new behavior using a clicker, and you can also use these methods without a clicker.

The luring method

Luring is probably the most basic training method, and the one most dog owners are familiar with. With luring, you use a treat to lead (or lure) your dog into position. For example, to get your dog to sit using luring, you would hold a treat in front of your dog’s nose and then move the treat up and back over your dog’s head so that he rocks back and sits.

To combine clicker training with luring, click when your dog does what you’re looking for. For “sit,” click when your dog’s butt touches the ground, and then give him the treat that you were using as the lure.

For a more complex behavior, such as teaching your dog to sit in a chair, you would use the treat to lure him to and then up onto the chair, and then lure into the sit position. Click when his butt touches the seat of the chair.

Repeat until your dog doesn’t need much help from you with the lure.

The shaping method

Shaping is one of the most fun training methods, because it is a guessing game for your dog. It is also very well suited for clicker training!

Did you ever play Hot and Cold as a kid? Your friend would hide an item, and as you wandered the room, your friend would say if you were getting hotter (closer) or colder (farther away). When shaping a behavior, the click tells your dog that he is getting hotter, or getting closer to the final behavior that you are looking for.

To get started shaping a behavior, you need to break down the end behavior into baby steps that will build up to the final product. At first you will click and reward for anything that your dog does that is remotely related to the end behavior, and as he gets quicker about it (indicating that he understands), you can get more specific with your criteria for what he has to do to earn the reward.

What is really cool about shaping is that it teaches your dog how to learn. You aren’t showing him what to do – he is figuring it out on his own, and getting rewarded for his efforts. And dogs love it.

Let’s look at the example of sitting in a chair. When shaping this, at first you will click if your dog approaches or even looks at the chair. When he is consistently doing that, start waiting to click until he gets right next to the chair.

Next, click only when your dog touches the chair. When he is repeating that quickly and consistently, wait to click until he puts a paw on the chair. Then two paws, then the whole body. For the final step, only click and reward when he gets up in the chair and sits.

This can take some patience! At each step your dog will experiment and try different things to “make” you click. Just sit quietly and wait.

If your dog is taking a long time to figure out the next step and seems to be getting frustrated, he probably wasn’t as solid on the previous step as you thought. Go back a step and make it easier for him so he can be successful.

The capturing method

Capturing is a simple concept, but requires a lot of patience. To capture a behavior, you will need to wait until your dog does it on his own, and then immediately praise and reward. With repetition, your dog will figure out what you want and start offering the behavior.

For example, to teach “sit” with capturing, wait until your dog sits on his own and then reward. Do this every time he sits (or as often as possible). To use a clicker for capturing, click when your dog sits on his own.

For the best success with capturing, you will need treats either with you at all times or stashed throughout your house for easy access. If capturing with a clicker, keep the clicker on you (ideally in your hand or on a wristband) at all times.

Capturing does have some limitations. It works well for behaviors that your dog does naturally, such as sit, down, or sneezing (yes, you can teach your dog to sneeze on command). But if you want your dog to do something more unusual or involved, like pulling a tissue out of a box and bringing it to you, capturing is probably not going to work.

Step 4: Add in the cue

No matter what training method you are using, don’t introduce your cue or signal until your dog knows the final behavior and is repeating it regularly and easily with minimal help from you.

Why? Because you want your cue to mean the final behavior, not a halfway point!

Dogs don’t intrinsically know what phrases like “sit” or “go to your chair” mean. To pair the cue with the behavior, first just practice the behavior a little as you have been. For example, if luring a sit, your dog should be at the point where you only need to reach your hand with the lure toward him to get him to sit. If shaping sitting in a chair, he should be hopping right up in that chair as soon as you let him go.

After that brief warm up, say your cue word or phrase (such as “sit” or “go to your chair”). Even though he doesn’t know what it means, he will perform the behavior because that is what you have been working on (if luring, use the same degree of lure that you have been using). Praise and reward. Repeat until he starts to offer the behavior immediately when you give the cue.

Important: Once you start introducing the cue, only reward your dog if he performs the behavior when you give the cue.

The cue becomes a “gateway” to tell your dog that you a) want that behavior now, and b) will give him a reward for it. If he doesn’t offer the behavior when asked, help him a little bit so he gets it right. If he offers the behavior without being asked, just ignore him.

Clicker training a dog

The nitty-gritty of operant conditioning

If you like to nerd out about science and vocab, this section is for you.

There are four ways to mold behavior in operant conditioning:

Positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is when you add something to make your dog want to repeat whatever he just did. Positive = adding something, reinforcement = happy dog. Giving your dog a treat is positive reinforcement.

Positive punishment

Positive punishment is when you add something to make your dog NOT want to repeat whatever he just did. Positive = adding something, punishment = sad dog. Running at your dog yelling angrily is positive punishment.

Negative reinforcement

This is when you remove something to make your dog want to repeat whatever he just did. Negative = removing something, reinforcement = happy dog. Releasing pressure on a leash is negative reinforcement.

Negative Punishment

Negative punishment is when you remove something to make your dog NOT want to repeat whatever he just did. Negative = removing something, punishment = sad dog. Taking away the toy and stopping playtime is negative punishment.

These terms can be a bit confusing as the academic definitions are not the same as how we usually use these words in day-to-day life. But, they are important to keep in mind when reading articles on training and learning theory.

Positive reinforcement is the most commonly used and most effective strategy when teaching your dog something new. Everyone is more enthusiastic about learning if they get a reward for doing it right! This strategy is also the simplest to understand and use well to get the desired results.

The clicker is a conditioned reinforcer. Your dog is conditioned, or learns, that the click means he did something right. It can also be called a bridging stimulus, because the click both marks the moment when your dog is right and tells him that a reward will be coming soon.

5 benefits of clicker training 

  1. The click is consistent, so your dog knows for sure when he did something right
  2. It’s fun – who doesn’t like getting a reward?
  3. Builds confidence
  4. Senior dogs with hearing loss can often still hear the clicker
  5. Using positive reinforcement when training is rewarding for you as well

What behaviors can you teach using clicker training?

Pretty much anything! I especially like using a clicker for teaching dogs tricks, such as shake or roll over. I also use it to fine-tune precision for obedience competitions. For example, getting my dog to sit close and straight on my left side, or to sit straight right in front of me. I also use it to build motivation for things that my dogs don’t really love doing, such as weave poles in agility training.

You can also use a clicker to reinforce walking on a loose leash, sitting to be petted, or for crate training.

When not to use a clicker

Some dogs get really amped up about clicker training. For these dogs, you might NOT want to use a clicker for training behaviors that require your dog to be calm.

For example, I was teaching one of my dogs to press a wall-mounted light to turn it on and off. This particular dog is crazy about the clicker, and if she knows the behavior I’m training involves her feet, she will start punching and stomping everything in sight – hard. Since I didn’t really want her to punch a hole in my drywall, we didn’t use the clicker for those training sessions.

“Stay” or “wait” is another behavior that may be challenging to teach with a clicker if you have an exuberant dog. Some dogs leap toward you the moment you click, which is counter-productive to teaching stay.

When should you start clicker training your dog?

Any time! Some breeders will even start introducing clicker training before puppies go to their new homes. Introducing the concept of the clicker is fun and easy for little puppies, and their young minds are ready to soak up new things.

But if you have an older dog, no worries! Old dogs absolutely can learn new tricks. Some senior dogs might just take a little longer to figure out what the clicker means.

How long does it take to clicker train a dog?

Introducing the concept of clicker training, often referred to as “loading” or “charging” the clicker, does not take long. Most young dogs will figure it out within five minutes or so, and even older dogs who are new to training generally get it within two or three short training sessions.

How long it will take to teach a new behavior using clicker training will depend on the complexity of the behavior, how challenging it is for your individual dog (for example, some dogs are natural retrievers while others are not), and how often you practice.

Experienced clicker dogs will learn more quickly than those who are still new to it.

Can you train your dog without a clicker?

Absolutely. People have been training dogs and other animals for a long time, much of that before clickers existed. The benefit to using a clicker is that it is a clear, consistent marker so your dog is always getting clear feedback.

But if you get to your training class and you forgot your clicker, don’t worry. You can still participate in class and work with your dog.

Some people have trouble manipulating the clicker, or juggling clicker, leash, and treats or toys. If using a clicker is stressing you out, skip it – the whole point is for you and your dog to enjoy training and working together.

How often should you clicker train your dog? 

You can clicker train as often or infrequently as you like. For the best results and quickest progress, do short training sessions (5-10 minutes) on a regular basis. These short sessions keep your dog wanting more, and prevent him from getting bored or tired. Shaping in particular can be mentally exhausting!

Doing a short training session every day or a couple times throughout the day is a great way to make quick progress teaching your dog a new behavior, but it is not a requirement. If it has been a while since you last clicker trained your dog, he might need a quick refresher at the start of the session, but he’ll pick it back up quickly.

Can you clicker train a rescue dog?

Absolutely! Any dog from any background, of any breed or mix, can be clicker trained.

The one exception is if your dog is afraid of the clicker. Some clickers can be pretty loud, so if your dog is sound-sensitive, try a quieter clicker, or even use a clicky pen instead. If this is still too stressful for your dog, abandon clicker training with that dog. You might be able to reintroduce clicker training later on after you and your rescue dog have bonded and he has gained more confidence.

What if my dog doesn’t do what I asked?

This depends on if you are asking your dog to do something new that he is still learning, or if you are sure that he knows the behavior. The situation will also affect how you react.

If your dog is still learning the behavior, not doing what you ask for or want simply means that he doesn’t fully understand what you want yet. Go back a step in your training and make it easier for him to succeed, then work back up.

If you think your dog knows the behavior, think about it a little more. How long have you been working on this behavior? Are you giving the same cue in the same tone that you usually do, or are you doing something different this time (for example, one of my dogs only lies down if I say, “lie down” – if I forget and just say, “down,” she just stares at me)? Are you in a familiar environment, or is this your first time taking the behavior “on the road” and doing it in public?

Many times, on thinking about it you will realize that your dog actually didn’t know the behavior as well as you thought. Help him a little, and make a mental note to practice more, whether that means solidifying your cue or practicing in places with distractions.

If your dog truly knows the behavior, your response depends on your dog and the situation. Shaking paws to impress a friend is pretty unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Don’t repeat your cue, because that will just teach your dog that he doesn’t need to listen to you the first time you say something. Quietly and calmly break the awkward silence by repositioning him or asking him to do something else, then try again.

Breaking a sit stay at the door is a higher-stakes situation, because it could impact your dog’s safety or the safety of a guest at the door. In this sort of situation, calmly catch up your dog and remove him from the area. He loses the privilege of being close to the door for a bit while you review that skill with him. This might mean keeping him on a leash the next few times you expect company, or putting him in his crate to prevent access to the door.

Clicker training pro tips

  • Don’t skimp on charging your clicker – make sure your dog really knows that click = treat!
  • Keep sessions short, 5-10 minutes
  • Use high-value rewards that your dog loves
  • Start with an easy behavior, such as a nose touch to your hand
  • Work one dog at a time until you and your dog are in a groove
  • Be consistent with your criteria for clicking

Key takeaways on clicker training for dogs

Clicker training is a training method that uses a clicker to mark the moment when your dog does something right, letting him know that a reward will be following soon. The clicker eliminates many of the confusing inconsistencies that can occur when using your voice as a marker.

Clicker training is based on positive reinforcement, where you use rewards to encourage your dog to repeat a desired behavior.

The clicker is a tool that can be used with multiple training methods, including luring, shaping, and capturing.

Any dog can have fun with clicker training, regardless of age or breed/mix. And what you teach is only limited by your imagination. Have fun with it!

 

Kate Basedow, LVT