It's OK to be skeptical. We've all heard about various breakthroughs in the dog-training field, and chances are, no matter how many people swear by a particular method, it did nothing for your loving (but ill-behaved) pooch. However, clicker training is different. According to the company Karen Pryor Clickertraining (KPCT) -- a leader in the development and instruction of the technique -- clicker training is "an animal training method based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking desirable behavior and rewarding it."
So what does behavioral psychology have to do with dog training? Clicker training works by using positive reinforcement, so there's no punishment involved. This means your dog will actually want to do what you say. It sounds crazy, we know, but there's something in it for him, too.
The idea behind clicker training is simple: A clicker (or any other tool that makes a distinctive sound) along with a reward -- such as a food-based treat -- can be used to teach your dog to repeatedly perform a specific behavior. Start by clicking the clicker, then reward your dog with a treat, no tricks or tasks involved. After he begins to associate the sound with a reward, try to get him to perform more complex behaviors. For example, if you want him to sit at the sound of the click, tell him to sit; then physically push his hindquarters to the ground. Once he's sitting, click the clicker, then give him a treat. Your pet will quickly pick up on the fact that sitting on command will earn him a tasty bite to eat [source: KPCT].
However, you have to be consistent. If you don't apply the techniques routinely, this training method will not work. Every time you click, you must be prepared to give your dog a treat -- at least at first. After the desired behavior has been established, you can continue to click, but distribute rewards less frequently or simply praise your dog. Eventually, you won't have to give him anything or even use the clicker. He'll understand what to do when he's told to sit. You can then use the clicker to train your dog in a new technique [source: KPCT].
Read the next page for tips to make sure your dog sits (or anything else you want him to do) when you click.
Clicker Dog Training Tips
Before you even pick up a clicker, you have to be prepared to reward your dog consistently and on time. "With clicker training, timing is everything," explains Evan Feinberg, a veterinarian in Stevenson, MD. "A matter of seconds can make the difference between success and failure. Your dog has a rather short attention span, and you really have to seize the moment." For example, if the command is "sit," then you need to dispense the treat almost as soon as your dog's bottom hits the ground. If you wait more than three seconds, it's too late, and chances are your pooch won't associate the click or the reward with his behavior.
Also, clicking is certainly an important part of clicker training, but you don't have to buy a top-of-the-line or specialized gadget to do it. "I often suggest that clients just snap their fingers if they can create a loud, consistent snap," says dog behaviorist and obedience trainer Joy Freedman of Baltimore, MD. "That way, you're never without your clicker, and you can't misplace it!"
Another aspect that many would-be clicker trainers overlook is the reward itself. You can't clicker-train your dog with any old treat. The reward needs to consistently provide incentive for your pooch to follow your command. A great test for determining which treat is best is to choose two small food items, such as a store-bought dog treat and a small piece of chicken meat, then put one in each fist. Hold your hands out evenly, and whichever he chooses will be your go-to clicker-training reward [Source: Freedman].
Again, consistency is also crucial for training success. All family members must be on board for clicker training to work. The clicker must be used every time a command is given, and the same, doggy-chosen treat must always follow, regardless of who is training the dog.
Clicker Training an Aggressive Dog
It's a common misconception that hostile dogs can't be trained using the clicker method. This is only partially true. "There are many causes for aggressive behavior in dogs, but dogs with fear-based aggression shouldn't be trained using a clicker," says Freedman. "This is even more critical when it comes to dogs who are fearful of loud noises." Because a clicker makes a loud, sudden sound, your dog may see this as a threat rather than a signal.
However, other types of aggressive behavior can be stymied by clicker training, but don't be discouraged if your efforts at rehabilitation don't see immediate results. Aggressive dogs often have to re-learn how to react to the world around them, and Fienberg stresses that, "A month or two of hard work will really pay off. With constant positive reinforcement, you are creating a bond that will last for the rest of the dog's life."
Through love and consistent clicker training, even the most hostile dogs can be rehabilitated. One of the most famous examples of aggression rehabilitation through clicker training is Leo, a pit bull rescued from Michael Vick's dogfighting ring.
When he was first rescued, Leo's prospects weren't bright. As a trained fighter and killer, he knew little of love and even less about obedience. But after five weeks of intensive rehabilitation (which included clicker training), Leo was transformed into a sweet, lovable pooch who enjoys being around people. Instead of fighting for his life, he now works as a therapy dog and wears a colorful clown collar while visiting cancer patients at the Camino Infusion Center in Mountain View, Calif. Leo is warm and gentle, and he brings joy and hope to those battling cancer. But none of it would have been possible without love, dedication and clicker training [source: McClay, MSNBC].
- Favro, Marianne and Alex Johnson. "Beaten-down dog from Vick case has his day." MSNBC. June 06, 2008. (Aug. 26, 2011) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/25214356/
- Feinberg, Evan A. Owner, Stevenson Village Veterinary Hospital. Personal interview conducted by Amy Feinstein. Aug. 10, 2011.
- Freedman, Joy. Owner, 4 Paws Pet Service. Personal interview conducted by Amy Feinstein. Aug. 10, 2011.
- Karen Pryor Clickertraining (KPCT). "Homepage" (August 12, 2011) http://www.clickertraining.com
- McClay, Marthina, Director of Our Pack, Inc. Personal interview conducted by Amy Feinstein. Aug. 26, 2011.