Clicker training sounds like it may be a load of B.S. But, once you catch on, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can teach your dog the basics he’ll need in the field.
Bob the Boykin Spaniel is what I’d call a bird-dog-in-training. At a little over 6 months old, he’s at the beginning of what is hopefully a long, healthy, and productive time on this planet.
Together, we’re both working toward a future in which Bob will be my canine partner in both my home and the field. And if I’m both lucky and good at what I train him to do, we might just be able to put some birds in our freezer for future meals.
I came to the idea of clicker training thanks to my time in the horse world. A horse I owned had some issues with mental engagement, and clicker training brought her out of her formerly cranky shell. She blossomed once she figured out the game, and I figured if it worked for her, it’d work for my new pup.
At just 8 weeks old, Bob started his journey with clicker training. Forgive the pun, but man, did it click! And from there, we’ve shaped a bevy of behaviors for reliable and consistent performance under pressure.
Read on to get started building a more fun and communicative relationship with your pup, whether they’re destined for field trials or just your backyard.
What Is Clicker Training?
Clicker training employs a specific and audible sound to mark behavior immediately, and then uses a treat to reward and reinforce the behavior. In clicker training circles, you’ll see folks use the sign “R+”. This relates to positive reinforcement, a notion that goes back to B.F. Skinner’s work in operant conditioning.
Essentially, the system uses positive reinforcement as a proactive rather than reactive training system. You could follow your dog around all day, use the clicker every time she does something you like (sit, lie down, come, etc.), give a treat, and easily shape a series of commands naturally, without ever using any sort of force.
This, of course, is not how many of us live our lives. Instead, we work in short bursts. And by clicking during the desired behavior, we are able to communicate to our pets that they are doing exactly what we want them to do. Following with a treat reinforces the behavior.
And once animals pick up on this game, they get very stoked to problem-solve and figure out which behavior it is that is helping them reap the rewards. Learning has now become a two-way street, and they’re in it to win it.
Don’t believe me? Teach a dog a few tricks with a clicker, get a really great treat (Chicken! Cheese!), and watch them cycle through all the tricks they know trying to get a click. It’s hilarious and impressive.
Gear Up for Clicker Training
It’s really quite simple to get started clicker training. You simply need a tool to click, a reinforcement treat, and a will to learn alongside your pet.
And clicker training can extend far beyond dogs. Folks have successfully trained cats, mice, birds, and more with a click/treat mode.
For clicking, you can use a handheld clicker or you can simply click with your tongue. I personally use the latter, as a handheld clicker was annoying to use with the horses, and I lost the clicker I had prior to getting Bob.
For treats, I like to use a mix of what trainers call “high-reward” and “low-reward” treats. A high-reward treat is something that really reinforces behavior.
If you have a dog that isn’t super food-motivated, high-reward treats are where it’s at. My border collie Butch was not a treat guy, but I figured out that he’d do almost anything for Oscar Meier weiners or a piece of grilled chicken. Yes, even your dog who hates dog treats will probably like hot dogs or chicken. Promise.
If, like Bob, your dog is food-motivated, mix low-reward treats like kibble in with high-reward treats.
A lot of high-octane clicker trainers get a treat bag — like the Ruffwear Treat Trader — and they clip it to a belt or belt loop for easy access. Tbh, I’m a ziplock kinda gal. But maybe, just maybe, I’ll make the upgrade to a treat pouch soon.
One last thing I’d suggest is Karen Pryor’s Clicker Training for Dogs book. It’s simple, short, but helpful for newbies. I learned Clicker Training entirely through reading, and there are a ton of great YouTube videos and folks out there, but Pryor founded the philosophy and her books are super helpful.
A Note on Operant Conditioning: No ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’
There are four basic quadrants of operant conditioning, and we use all of them when we train our dogs. Using reinforcement intends to increase a behavior while using punishment intends to decrease a behavior.
And positive and negative in relation to these two words are not associated with good or bad. They are more mathematical, with positive being the addition of something (a treat!) and negative being the removal of something.
This is really important to understand. Positive reinforcement is a proactive way to train, but there are times you’ll need to be reactive and employ — let’s say — negative punishment to decrease certain behaviors.
Remember, this is not bad. It’s simply the removal of something to decrease a behavior. For example, yelling at your dog after it does something naughty is actually positive punishment, because you’re adding something to decrease a behavior.
A great example of negative reinforcement — removing something unpleasant to decrease a behavior — is releasing tension on a leash when your dog walks on heel.
There are plenty of dog trainers out there who don’t understand this. Positive reinforcement is awesome, but it’s one part of the whole. If we can rewrite some of our more emotional reactions to these words, then we can get super creative in how we help our animals live as happy, functional, and loving beings in our human world.
Getting Started With Clicker Training
OK! We made it. You’ve got a clicker, a treat bag filled with treats, and a tongue-lolling friend ready to learn.
The first thing you’ll do is called loading the clicker. This is how you teach your pup that every time she hears a click, she gets a reward. This is an unbreakable agreement between you and your dog.
A click is never used to entice, it is used to mark a behavior. If you don’t have a treat, you simply can’t click.
Click and reward your dog over a period of 5-20 minutes. In clicker training circles, you’ll see this referred to as click/treat, or c/t. Soon, you’ll see the lightbulb go on, but it may take a few sessions. When your dog hears a click and expects a treat consistently, you’re ready to dig into some basic tricks.
From there, think about training your dog in little slices. The biggest thing to remember as you begin to clicker train your dog is to click while the desired behavior is happening, not after. Timing is key. The treat is the reinforcer, and you can pause on a treat to let the animal complete a behavior.
For instance, in teaching Bob how to sit up from a lie-down position, I would initially treat him for any small try. He’d jump up, I’d click/treat. He’d push up a little on his paws? C/t.
And once he finally sat up quietly, I rewarded him with a lot of treats and a party of gratuitous and very excited praise, like, “Yasss, Bob! Who’s the BEST boy?!”
Then, once I knew he understood, I’d only click and treat when the exact behavior was given. I marked the behavior, and then I shaped and refined it. “Sit up” is a part of Bob’s repertoire that will serve him well in the hunting blind, and man, he’s got it.
Start with basic commands, like teaching your dog to sit, lie down, come, stay, and shake. Then, get as wild as you want. Reinforcing good behavior makes a good dog better.
Keep your training sessions short, and your expectations reasonable. From there, the sky is the limit.
Final Thoughts on Clicker Training Your Dog
At just 6 months, Bob currently knows as many commands as my 6-year-old border collie. But, as a future hunting dog, he’s got a lot more to learn.
Whether your dog is 8 weeks old or 10 years old, clicker training works. For me, nothing has been more exciting than having a newfound way to better communicate with my animals. And the exciting thing about this form of training is that it engages our animal partners rather than relegating them to a world where they might get the right answer.
The click is a stand-in for the barrier of language between humans and animals. And, in my experience, all animals are a lot happier when their lives are easier to understand.
Plus, it’s wild to see how quickly our creature friends can learn once they’ve picked up on the basic pattern of clicking and treating. From there, there really are no bounds to the silly, fun, and creative ways to better develop your relationship with your pets.
This, of course, is a very pared-down explanation of a practice that can take a lifetime of work to master. But there are plenty of resources out there. Get started clicker training, and you just might not stop. I know I haven’t.