How Does Clicker Training Work for Dogs?

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A man and a black and brown dog  practicing training in their yard.
Dr. Erica Irish author of How does clicker training work for dogs

There are many methods of training your dog. You’re probably most familiar with teaching your dog basic commands such as “sit” or “stay,” usually involving the use of a treat or toy as a reward. But not all training requires the use of verbal cues, and one such example is clicker training. 

What is clicker training, and how can you go about training your own pooch in such a manner?  


What is clicker training?

Clicker training is a form of classical conditioning, which is when a previously neutral stimulus evokes a positive response and becomes associated with a desired outcome or reward. For example, your dog may be highly food motivated and gets excited whenever he sees or smells his food.

However, you’ve just bought him a new food bowl, and he isn’t used to it, so he doesn’t get excited when he sees the bowl sans food. Once you start putting food into it, he realizes that this bowl is associated with food. Now, every time he sees the bowl, even if it’s empty, he will get excited!

Clickers are small handheld tools that are about the size of a standard keychain, and they make an audible “clicking” sound when they are pressed or squeezed. The average dog who has never seen or heard a clicker may not respond to it at first, so this is a perfect example of a neutral stimulus.

Clickers are commonly used as a part of training military and police dogs but can be used for your own pup at home. They are inexpensive and can be purchased from any pet supplier. Most importantly, clickers are associated with positive reinforcement training, which is the primary way that dogs learn and remember things. Negative reinforcement or “punishment” training is not as effective as positive reinforcement.


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How does the clicker work?

The clicker is pressed or squeezed to produce a “clicking” sound whenever your dog has done something correctly. In the beginning, it is used with a treat to produce the desired effect. 

Words like “good” and “yes” are options for training, but these are also words that are used throughout the day as a means of normal communication with our furry friends. The clicker sound is unique in that it can be used to tie itself to positive behavior. However, if you wish, you can transition from clicker to verbal cues after the desired behavior is trained.  


How to “charge” the clicker

In order for your dog to learn what the clicker is and how it works, you will need to “charge” your clicker. You can do this by clicking it once and then immediately giving him a treat. There is no set wait time in between another click-and-treat exercise, but this action should be repeated ten to twenty times before your pup begins to associate the clicking sound with a treat. Once this occurs, you are ready to get started with clicker training.

Remember that you shouldn’t point the clicker at your dog. Instead, you should hold the clicker by your side or keep it behind you and out of sight. Do not click the clicker without having a treat handy because your dog will lose the clicker association if he is not regularly rewarded.


Basic training

One of the easiest ways to get started with clicker training is teaching your dog how to sit. At first, you will need to catch him while he is sitting down naturally. Click the clicker just once and then immediately give him his treat. This action is then repeated other times where you see that he is sitting.

Eventually, you will add the word “sit” to this mix, and your pup will learn that sitting means “treat”! You will then proceed to use just the word “sit” in order to suggest the desired behavior, and over time, you can remove the clicker altogether and just the verbal command will be enough to get your dog to sit.

In this kind of training, a clicker is a tool that enhances the way you train your canine companion. It can be used to train your dog to do specific actions like “stay” or “shake,” but it can also be used to avoid unwanted behaviors. For example, you might click it when all four of your dog’s paws are on the ground during a visit from friends and family. This way, he will learn not to jump on guests!  


Where to get a clicker

Many in-store and online pet suppliers have clickers available. SitStay sells custom printed clickers in a variety of colors, styles, and price ranges. They are the perfect size for keeping out of sight during training, and they can easily fit in your pocket or purse.

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Clicker training is an excellent tool to help further bridge the connection between verbal commands and desired behaviors. By associating this neutral stimulus with a tasty treat, you will make learning easier for your pup without blurring the lines between positive reinforcement and a positive human-to-pet relationship. Remember that patience and repetition are critical to effective training, and always be consistent with your dog. You may be surprised to see how fast he can learn with clicker training!  


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Dr. Erica Irish

Erica has worked in the veterinary field since 2006, starting out as a veterinary technician before graduating from the UF College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. As a general practitioner in an animal hospital, she has many interests and is especially interested in dermatology, cardiology, internal and integrative medicine


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