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A Guide to Clicker Training for Dogs

Laura Richards
Sept. 15, 2015

Clicker training for dogs is a method of animal training that uses the sound of a click. Learn the ins and outs of how to do it and whether it's the best method for you and your pup!

Having trouble training your dog? Do you wish it was more fun or engaging? Clicker training might be the answer!

What Is Clicker Training?
Clicker training for dogs utilizes a small hand-held object that makes a sharp and distinct click sound when you press on the metal strip. This gets your dog's attention while you use a treat to provide positive reinforcement for training. "Think of your clicker as a camera photographing moments you want to see again. Use it to mark good behavior, such as when your dog goes to the bathroom in the right place, comes when he is called or releases a toy when asked," says Sarah Hodgson, a dog trainer in the tri-state area and an associate certified dog behavior consultant.

Why Choose This Method?
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), this behavior creates a language between you and your dog. "Clicker training for dogs combines the fun and functional factors into a portable, realistic, flexible system that builds and reinforces bonding, intelligence, communication and relationships in your dog" says Jeff Saret, a dog trainer and owner of Pawsitive-U in Natick, Massachusetts.

Hodgson cautions that the clicker should not be used to encourage cooperation. "If you want your dog to come to you, for example, you use your clicker when he is at your side, not to get his attention," she says. Typically, food is used for the positive reinforcement in clicker training for dogs, but a toy can be used for those dogs who aren't motivated by treats.

What Supplies Do You Need?
You need a clicker, available at pet stores, and treats or a toy to start. Saret recommends a key ring on a rubber coil to wear on your or your trainer's wrist and a reclosable sandwich baggie for treats. "This makes it easy to carry whenever you are with your dog and a teachable or trainable moment presents itself," he says.

It's important not to speak, to let your dog focus on the noise of the clicker and get used to the process. Hodgson's five-step method for initiating using the clicker is as follows:
 

  1. Set Up Food
    Line up ten bits of food, to be accessible to you, not your dog. The bits should be small enough that your dog could swallow them in two seconds.
     
  2. Hide the Clicker
    Place the clicker behind your back or in your pocket, as the noise can be startling initially. Hold the treat in your other hand.
     
  3. Begin With a Click
    Click and then offer the treat, in that order.
     
  4. Use Up the Food
    Finish with the ten treats and end the interaction with attention or play.
     
  5. Repeat Until Satisfied
    Repeat the session until you can clearly see your dog's enthusiasm and expectation of the food after the clicker sounds. This shows that he has made the connection.


How Can You Use the Clicker for Command Training?
After following the clicker initiation, Saret suggests training in ten-minute segments. He says focused behavior training can be a challenge at first for some dogs until they learn to focus on you and your response to their behaviors.

To teach a command, follow these five steps:
 

  1. Say the command once.
  2. Observe if your dog performs the correct action.
  3. Click the clicker.
  4. Provide the treat.
  5. Praise your dog.


This basic blueprint can be used to train a variety of commands or behaviors.

When Do You Stop Using the Clicker?
"You might ask, 'Am I married to this gadget forever?' The short answer is no. Orchestrating its disappearance while continuing its effectiveness takes some creativity and finesse," Hodgson says. "The key concept is 'unpredictable reinforcement' -- a fancy way of saying phase out the rewards slowly. Click for two responses, then one and then discontinue."

Saret says it can take two weeks to two months to train a new trick or behavior and up to six months to break or retrain a bad behavior. "Patient, persistent, consistent and constructive training will help to deliver great results," he says. In the meantime, you can strengthen the bond between you and your pup with a fun, new gadget!

For more training tips, check out 15 Helpful Dog Training Tips From the Experts.

Laura Richards is a Boston-based freelance writer and the mother of four boys, including a set of identical twins and also mom to three rescue pets: Scarlett, a 7-year-old beagle, and Edith and Ollie, 15-year-old identical twin black cats. She has written for numerous parenting publications and is the president of On Point Communications.

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