While many people consider clicker training a new way to work with dogs and other animals, clicker training has actually been around for many, many years under the name “operant conditioning”. Animal trainers, behavior trainers, scientists and even therapist have been using operant training on animals and people for centuries. Operant training works on the principle of pairing a desired behavior with a positive outcome for the animal, one that is not naturally associated with the behavior itself.
For example, if a dog is told to sit and does, he or she may receive a treat. If you were also to click a clicker when you gave the treat that would become a positive as well. Over a period of time the dog would come to equate the clicker with “good behavior” even if you didn’t also present a treat.
What is the clicker?
The clicker is simply a little plastic box-like device that is carried in the hand of the trainer. A metal strap is depressed and released that produces a sharp “click” that becomes, for the dog, the equivalent of “Good Dog”. Clickers are much faster than using words and also are less likely to be ignored by the dog as they are easy to hear, even in crowds or highly distracting environments.
Clickers are always used with a treat at first, if not just simply clicking doesn’t seem like a reward to the dog. The great thing about clicker training is that it is all based on positive behavior and on the dog getting closer and closer to doing things perfect.
The key to effective clicker training is to break the command down into the tiniest of steps. Start rewarding each approximation to the final result with a treat and a click. For example, if you wanted to teach the dog to jump through a hoop, first start with keeping the dog running beside you in the heel position. Then have stick lying across the path the dog will take. When you get to the stick say “Jump” and when the dog steps over the stick (because no jump is even required), click, treat and praise follow immediately. Gradually increase the height of the stick or bar off the ground. Click for each completion of the jump command over the stick. Clickers have the added benefit of providing reinforcement without having to stop for a treat.
Once the dog understands “Jump” with the clicker, introduce the hoop on the ground. Use another command such as “Hoop” to get the dog to step through the hoop on the ground. Click and provide a treat and praise. Once the dog does this successfully, try elevating the hoop a few inches. This time combine “Jump” and “Hoop” commands. Click for successful completions of stepping up and through the hoop. Gradually increase until you can hold the hoop and verbally command the dog up and through. Click for reinforcement of each jump through.
Clicker training can be used for both simple and complex commands, but always must be paired with a treat until the dog understands that the clicker is the treat.