CHARGE THE CLICKER
The first thing you need to is charge the clicker. Charging the clicker is simply teaching your dog that the ‘click’ noise always precedes a wonderful treat. Simply take 10 treats and occasionally click the clicker and give your dog a treat. Mix it up so he does not do one behavior or just sit in front of you waiting for the next treat. If he does this, walk away from him and take a little break. When you get to the point where your dog is looking away from you and quickly turns around upon hearing the ‘click’ then you can say the clicker is “charged”.
START USING THE CLICKER
Now that your dog associates the clicker with something wonderful, you can use it as a teaching tool. The great thing about the clicker is that it marks a behavior very clearly so a dog knows exactly what the right answer is. Here is an exercise that you can do with your dog. I want you to think of the clicker as taking a picture of a behavior that you like. This is really good with young, overexcited puppies. As we discussed, you can use a clicker to teach a dog that his behavior dictates whether he gets rewarded.
So, you can do something called shaping. Don’t ask your dog to do anything, just click and treat when you like what he is doing, and ignore when he does something inappropriate. Good examples include sitting, lying down or following you. Behaviors that you want to ignore might be jumping on you or barking. Read this post about shaping behaviors, and this post about getting rid of problem behaviors using shaping.
Once your dog does a behavior repeatedly is a good time to name the behavior. This might happen in one session or after multiple sessions. If he sits multiple times in a row in order to get a click and a treat, you can say, “Sit” and wait a moment. There is a good chance that he will sit because that has resulted in a treat in the past. You have now taught him what that word means by rewarding the behavior.
USING THE CLICKER OR "YES"
As I mentioned, if you don’t have a clicker, you can use the word “yes” or another consistent word. I don’t think this is as effective as a clicker because the sound of the clicker carries really well, especially outside when traffic noise might drown out the word, “yes”. The clicker is also very consistent, even if multiple family members train the same dog. You can experiment with using the clicker or “yes” and see what you like better. You can also interchange the two strategies. As long as you are being a really good teacher, the clicker is just a tool to help with that goal.
USING THE CLICKER AND VERBAL PRAISE
Now I want to talk about using the clicker in conjunction with verbal praise. There are tons of trainers all over the world not using the clicker and getting great results. Why am I such a fan of the clicker? Well, it works. It makes it absolutely clear to a dog what is the right answer. But, is the person that doesn’t use the clicker and just says “good boy” wrong? I don’t think so; I just think they are limiting their ability to be crystal clear in their instruction. Let’s take come when called as an example using just “good boy” without the clicker.
A dog is 20 feet away and you are teaching him to come when called. You call him, and while he is headed towards you say, “Good boy, keep going” and give him verbal praise. Then, he gets to you and you say, “Good boy” and give him a treat. You gave him verbal praise at various times during the behavior and then gave him a treat with another “good boy” when he successfully executed the behavior. Which part of his behavior was the meaning of the cue, “Come”?
Maybe you are thinking that it is obvious to him that come means move towards you until he is right next to you because that is when he got the treat. But, what about behaviors when he is not right next to you? What if you are teaching your dog to lie down, and you say, “Down” and then he lies down and then you walk over to give him a treat and he is standing when you get there. He already lied down which is correct, but now he is standing.
Hmmm. Now what do you do? Should he lie down again? But then that is asking for two behaviors instead of one. The clicker marks a very precise moment in time that an animal does something and makes learning really fast and efficient. With the come when called example, I recommend saying, “Come” then provide verbal encouragement until your dog is right next to you and then click and treat.
You are creating another level of communication by giving encouragement which means “Keep going – you are doing great, but you aren’t done yet” and then the click and the treat occurs when he does it exactly right. For the Down example, as soon as your dog lies down, you would click and treat to communicate that putting his belly on the ground is what "Down" means.
If you don’t use the clicker, your dog might get confused.
If you don’t use a clicker, confusion might result in your dog thinking that one behavior got him a reward, when in fact, you were rewarding a different behavior. The sound the clicker makes is actually called a reward marker and marks the behavior that results in a reward.
Some quick things to keep in mind.
- There is always one click and a treat, or a “jackpot” with multiple treats for extra special behaviors.
- The clicker is not a remote control. If you ‘click’, there is a good chance that your dog will come running in anticipation of the treat, but you just marked whatever your dog was doing when he heard the click. It is not supposed to be used to initiate behavior, but instead mark behavior.
- If you feel frustrated, break down your expectations into smaller segments. If you want a down, for instance, you might click and treat when your dog just moves down just a bit. When he is doing that reliably, you would say “Good” for that and click and treat when he lies down a bit more. You are motivating him to do more of the behavior for each click and treat until he is doing the entire behavior.
- You will always give a treat after using the clicker. As your dog gains more reliability with each behavior, you should start getting more behaviors in between treats by using verbal praise before clicking and treating.
FADING OUT THE CLICKER
That leads me to my next point . .. . Fading out the clicker. The way to fade the clicker is to use verbal praise and get more of one behavior or more individual behavior’s each time. Your dog can learn to understand to work harder in order to get another click, because a click always means a treat. So, you can start picking and choosing fantastic responses, faster sits, longer stays, or more behaviors before clicking. Think of your training strategy as broken down into individual 5- minute sessions. Start with a number of treats in a session, let’s say 30 tiny pea-sized treats. In the first session, you might give 30 treats in that period of time.
In the next session, I want you to give less treats and use more of your verbal praise, petting or toys as rewards. You should start picking out the fantastic performances and click and treat for those, and the other behaviors you should give verbal praise. “ “That was pretty good, but if you sit three times in a row, that is a click and a treat!”
I want you to work up to the point where you are using LIFE REWARDS. I have a blog post on my site about this, but basically it is a strategy to use rewarding toys, meals and events like walks that you give your dog anyway. You should do a quick training session before you give your dog anything rewarding throughout the day. Your dog will love the mental stimulation and you will have a lot of great practice.
DO YOU HAVE TO USE THE CLICKER FOREVER?
No. You might get to the point where your dog is reliable with all behaviors and you use toys, petting, walks and other life rewards as rewards. In that case you might just use verbal praise. However, I am a firm believer in teaching dogs new things whenever possible. When you have time to teach something new, get the clicker out and teach your dog something new. When that gets reliable, switch to verbal praise.
And remember, do not click unless you are going to give a treat. If your dog is doing a behavior that is reliable, say, give verbal praise until he does something new such as a longer down stay, or 5 sits in a row instead of 3 before you click and treat.
Do you need a clicker? You can purchase them directly on my website here.