It’s a wonderful sound. For my dog, it means he’s done something awesome and he’s about to get a reward. For me, it means our training session is going well. The clicker is supposed to be a reinforcer for my dog, but it’s become a reinforcer for his trainer, too.
I get a lot of pushback when suggesting the clicker to dog owners who have never used it before. It’s too complicated, they tell me. I can’t juggle so many things in my hand. I’ll never get the timing right.
Here’s the thing: the clicker isn’t complicated. In fact, it’s pretty straightforward. Your dog does something good - click, treat. As humans, we tend to overthink things, and sometimes that can make something like clicker training seem intimidating to a person unfamiliar with it. For our dogs, however, the clicker makes training faster and more successful because we are communicating in a way that our dogs find clear and easy to understand.
The idea of a clicker is to provide a marker that lets your dog know the exact second they do something correctly. This is paired with a reward like a treat so that they know the marker is a good thing and means something positive is going to happen to reward their good behavior. Because dogs live so much in the moment, if our reward comes even a little too late our dogs can easily associate it with the wrong thing – for example, if they sit, we go to offer the treat and they jump on us right as we are offering it, in their mind the treat is more likely for the jumping than the sit we were actually trying to reinforce.
So why a clicker? You can also use a word – I use “yes” – and that is effective, too, just not quite as fast. I like to have both as an option – the “yes” is easier to use when I don’t have a clicker handy, but the clicker tends to be faster for teaching new behaviors and especially for shaping more complicated behaviors. Studies have shown that dogs learn faster with a clicker than a verbal marker like “yes” (although the verbal marker is still faster than no marker at all).
The second issue I encounter with new clicker trainers a lot is juggling all of the dog’s equipment, treats and the clicker. This does take a little practice and some handling skills. Generally, I have the clicker attached to a keychain or bungee I can put around my wrist so I don’t have to constantly hold it. I also wrap the leash around my wrist (or in some cases attach it to my waist) for security. Frequently I have the clicker in the same hand as my leash, so this is important. And I always have a treat bag or some other handy spot to hold treats so they don’t need to be in my hand. Play with this to figure out what feels most comfortable to you while training – this is just what works for me.
And that brings me to another beautiful thing about clicker training – you don’t have to have the treats ready. Once you have “loaded” the clicker (paired it with good stuff by clicking and immediately offering treats several times) and your dog understands it as a positive marker, as long as the clicker happens at the right time (when the behavior you like happens), you don’t have to immediately have the treat ready. The clicker creates a buffer because your dog already knows what they did right, and as long as you click and then go for the treat, you will still be rewarding them in a timely manner and they will know WHY the treat is happening. This also helps a lot with not having the dog rely on the treat, as you don’t need to have it obvious or visible when training (eliminating the need to fade out having a treat in your hand, which takes extra time and can be tricky).
The last “tricky” element about clicker training is timing. Timing is important here – the click needs to happen when the behavior you like happens. However, this is pretty easy to practice, and easier to get right over time with the clicker than with your voice alone. When I was starting out, I practiced my timing by bouncing a ball and clicking every time it hit the floor, or clicking when I was watching TV every time the commercial changed. It was fun and good practice. And the wonderful thing about this method is even if your timing is a little off, there really is no harm done – you move on and try again and as long as you don’t make a habit of clicking the same wrong thing every time your dog will be able to eventually figure out what you are actually looking for through repetition.
If you have a very fearful or sound sensitive dog who seems nervous of the clicker sound, start with something much softer, like the click of a pen or a clicker wrapped in a handkerchief in your pocket. Once they are comfortable with that level of sound and are making a really good association, you can gradually try making it louder. Just keep in mind that if it gets too scary, you’re moving too fast. For nervous dogs, the clicker can actually be a great confidence-building tool once they understand the sound means really good things.
The clicker is a fantastic tool with a lot of uses. If you’re new to this type of training, break it down and take your time – once you get the hang of it, you’ll find that clicker training is well worth the effort.
Next to loose leash walking, teaching a dog to come every time you call seems to be the hardest skill for dog parents to master. It’s a challenge even for professional trainers – convincing your dog that it is better to come to you than go sniff that tree or chase that squirrel is no easy task. I have four simple rules that I follow when teaching this cue that, with the proper practice, can result in a rock-solid recall.
Rule #1: Choose a cue word that has no prior history, that you don’t say often, and that you will remember easily.
If your dog has already learned to ignore your recall cue, or has a negative association with the word because you have accidentally poisoned it (see rule #4 for details on poisoned cues), starting fresh with a new word will make your job way easier. You also want to make sure your cue word is exciting every time, so don’t choose a word you say frequently. I like “here” because I say it less often than “come” and it’s easier to say in a cheerful tone versus a frustrated or angry tone. I have had students use different languages (“Aqui!”) or a completely random word (“Donut!”). The simple fact is, your dog has no idea what a word means if they have already created an association with it, so you can use any word at all. Just keep it simple (ideally one or two syllables) and use a word you won’t forget in the heat of the moment when your dog is running toward a busy street.
Rule #2: Reinforce your recall cue every time, and use the best rewards ever.
Your recall cue needs to be more exciting than everything your dog needs to ignore to come back to you. This is part of why recalls are so hard – we usually need them the most when there are distractions happening, and we usually need them when our dog is off-leash, two factors that up the difficulty factor on any cue immediately. So right from the start, you want to pair your cue with whatever gets your dog the most excited – I usually use cheese, hot dogs, chicken, etc. If your dog is more toy driven, that can also be a great option for this one, but try to use a toy they only get when practicing this cue and not just a boring one they get every day. This is a cue that could save your dog’s life, so it is not a good time to get stingy with the rewards!
Rule #3: Until you have a strong cue, only practice in situations where you can easily get your dog back to you.
I generally start the recall cue on-leash, with the dog very close to me. Make it as easy as possible – set your dog up for success! Once they get the idea, give them more distance – you can put them on a long line (my favorite choice), or even practice in a hallway going between two people. But if you try this in a large area off-leash too soon, your dog can easily ignore you, and they will quickly realize they don’t have to listen and the cue isn’t that important. Also keep in mind that chasing is really fun for most dogs, so if your dog does get away and you chase after them, you are rewarding running away. (I use this to help the cue by running away from my dog to make coming back to me fun and incorporating chase to my advantage!) If your dog is on a leash or long line and is not responding to the cue, it is okay to gently guide them back toward you, but NEVER yank or drag them. You want this to have only good associations!
Rule #4: Only good things happen with your recall cue – nothing bad ever happens when they come to you!
The recall is one of the most commonly “poisoned” cues. This means that we accidentally create a negative association with it instead of a positive one. This happens every time we call the dog and something happens they don’t like – they get in trouble for running away, or they have to leave the dog park, or they have to come in from the yard. These are punishments in your dog’s mind, so you are basically punishing them for doing what you want, which is going to make them much less likely to come back when it matters. If you call your dog and they get in trouble, why would they ever want to come to you again when they can run away and avoid the trouble? If you call your dog to come in from the yard or to leave the dog park and fun immediately ends, why wouldn’t they just ignore you and keep playing? To fix this issue, if you do need to call them for something like leaving the dog park, make sure you call them a few minutes before you actually have to leave so you can spend some time playing or petting before you go and they are not making an immediate association with leaving. It also helps to do random recalls throughout their time at the park where they are allowed to go back to playing so they don’t think the cue only happens close to leaving time.
If you follow these rules and work at your dog’s pace, you will have a solid foundation for getting your dog to come back consistently on cue. A solid recall is not rocket science – just patience, time and some good training.
As a dog trainer, these words set my teeth on edge.
“Don’t worry, he’s friendly!”
This is usually being shouted by a clueless dog owner whose off-leash dog is barreling toward me and the dog I’m walking or training (on leash, of course, since in this scenario we’re in an area where leashes are legally required). If I happen to be holding a reactive or fearful dog, this is a disaster waiting to happen. Even if I’m holding a dog who is generally friendly, this situation has the potential to sour quickly, possibly creating lifelong behavior problems for the poor leashed dog who is about to get pummeled.
The dog who is coming toward me might be friendly. Often, they are. But the leashed dog is trapped, and has no choice to greet or move away. The off-leash dog can do whatever they want, “friendly” or not. This is not an even playing ground, and even normally friendly dogs can react in a defensive way, thanks to the instinct for fight or flight in situations they perceive as threatening.
So how can you set up for successful dog-dog greetings?
Rule #1: If you are in an area where dogs are legally supposed to be on leash, have your dog on leash. Every time. Even if your dog is friendly, well-behaved and has a good recall, it is not fair to the other dogs in the environment who are respecting the rules. They are automatically going to feel more threatened by an off-leash dog, even if you are able to call your dog away before they reach the leashed dog. And I regularly see dogs who are “well-trained” unable to resist the lure of greeting another dog when I’m out in these environments. If you want to let your dog run off-leash, choose an area where dogs are allowed off-leash.
Rule #2: Always ask before you let your dog approach another dog. Even if the dog looks calm and friendly, some dogs are okay until another dog gets in their face, some dogs show their discomfort in very subtle ways, and some dogs just don’t want to greet your dog. It is also possible that the other dog could be in training to be a working dog, and you could seriously damage their training by letting your dog race up and distract them. (As a service dog trainer – this happens all the time and can be a big setback to our training.)
Rule #3: Teach your dog how to do a polite greeting. This means having them "ask for permission" first to avoid racing up to every dog they see, and it means keeping the actual greeting short and sweet. To have your dog ask permission, I like to have them do a "sit" and "watch me" (at a distance until it becomes a more automatic response), and when I tell them “free” they are allowed to greet the dog. Ideally, walk your dog parallel to the other dog so they are sniffing sides and butts instead of greeting face to face (which is much more intimidating). Count to three, tell your dog “Let’s go!” in a cheerful voice, and walk away. Short greetings are important because the longer the dogs linger, the more likely they are to decide to either play (not ideal on leash) or fight (never okay). If you keep the greeting short and pleasant, you will have a much more successful, friendly dog. And dogs who are uncertain will be able to move away before they decide things aren’t cool and react in a negative way. Reinforce your dog for walking away from the other dog with excited praise, petting, movement, treats or toys to help encourage them to be willing to leave the dog quickly.
Obviously we have less control over how our dogs greet off-leash. I recommend having a really strong recall trained before going to any off-leash areas. I also never recommend taking a dog to an off-leash area if they are not comfortable interacting with other dogs. Watch your dog’s body language during any greetings and encourage them to move away after the initial greeting if you are uncertain both dogs want to play - usually you can do this by moving away yourself, calling them as you go. If the dogs do want to play, ask your dog to take breaks by calling them away and reinforcing them when they come back to you, then allowing them to go play again if they are being good. This helps keep the play calm and appropriate.
And what if you do find yourself in the first situation, holding an on-leash dog while an off-leash dog races toward you? If you have time, get the heck out of there. Tell the other owner to call their dog, loudly and repeatedly if necessary. If they don’t get the hint, or if the dog is too close, my favorite method of keeping the other dog at a distance is to toss a handful of treats, distracting them with goodies on the ground while I make my getaway.
If your dog is reactive, aggressive or afraid when faced with other dogs, get the help of a qualified trainer to set up safe, successful walks.
Appropriate dog/dog interactions can be a lot of fun, but for the sake of your dog and other dogs in your community, don’t be the person shouting, “Don’t worry, he’s friendly!” Instead, be the person asking, “Can my dog to say hello?”
Sarah is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge and Skills Assessed. She lives in the Texas Hill Country near Austin with her two dogs, Percy, a cattle dog mix, and Clara, a lab/German Shepherd.