If you have spent much time researching dog training, you have probably run across the term “clicker training” but you might have wondered what exactly it is, how it works, and if it is the best method of training.
I know that when I was a kid, I took an obedience class with my parents’ dog with an instructor who used a clicker. She told me to click when the dog did the right thing, then give her a treat but I didn’t understand why it worked. I am not one to follow instructions blindly. So for those of you who want to know the “why” behind what you are doing, let me explain.
What Is Clicker Training?
Clicker training is a form of marker training which is a classically conditioned signal to the dog that a reward is coming. Basically, it allows you to tell the dog exactly when he did the right thing and it bridges the gap between the dog doing the correct behavior and you giving the dog a reward. In order for a dog to understand the meaning behind the marker, you will need to condition the dog to expect a reward after the click. I go into more detail about this down below.
How Do I Condition My Dog to a Clicker or Other Marker?
Marker training works through classically conditioning the dog to expect a treat after he hears a click or other marker. Basically, you will have to “charge” the clicker with value. The quickest way to condition a dog to the marker is to click or say your marker word then immediately give him a treat. Repeat this several times and pretty soon the dog will start to expect a treat when you say your marker word or click. You can see this demonstrated surprisingly well in one of my favorite pranks from The Office US which you can see below. Once your dog is conditioned to the click or word, you will need to consistently reward your dog after you use it. Otherwise, your dog will stop associating the marker with a reward.
Are There Other Forms of Marker Training? Do I Need to Use a Clicker?
Personally, I use a marker word (“yes”) instead of a clicker because I always have my voice even when I go into a show ring and can’t always have a clicker in my hand. I also like to mark and reward when my dogs offer new good behavior throughout the day even when we aren’t training. For example, I taught my Golden, Flynn, to take a bow by saying, “Yes,” when he happened to bow down to play then quickly giving him some food. After I did this a few times, he started to bow intentionally to get my attention. I like that I don’t have to carry around a clicker.
On the other hand, you have to be careful to use the same tone of voice every time while a clicker is always consistent. Because consistency is key, it can be easier to use a clicker if multiple people are training the dog. Both verbal markers and clicker markers work well and your decision between the two should be based on your own training goals.