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.
Sarah is a trainer in the Austin/Dripping Springs area specializing in reactive dogs and service dogs. She lives with a bundle of doggie mischief named Percy.