Clicker training is an animal training method based on operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a method of learning often used with animal or dog training that is reinforced through rewards or punishment. Rewards are usually based on the adding of something pleasant such as a tasty dog treat, toy or initiating play. Punishments can include the taking away of a toy for example. Dog clicker training focuses on positive reinforcement only, but first, you have to make the clickers “click” sound a positive reward for your dog.
If you have recently rehomed a puppy, conditioning them to clickers is a great place to start with their behaviour training.
The first steps to dog clicker training
The first step is to get your dog, puppy or other pet (Cats, Rabbits, birds etc can also be trained!) to associate the “click" with something positive. The most efficient way to achieve this is to use something rewarding for your pet – dog or puppy, treats are usually the best way to start this. Make sure you use a high-value treat that your pet will really want to work for (make sure to only give little bits at a time!).
So when you are ready with your clicker and treat, get your pets attention and just simply “click” and as quickly as you can, give your pet the treat. Repeat this in quick succession so your pet becomes attentive to the click (timing is important, make sure you reward straight after the click).
This step may need to be repeated a few times, so they can really grasp that association. Some dogs might take a little longer than others to pick this up, patience is key, especially if you have a young pup!
To test that they have got the idea, get the clicker trainer when they are unaware or distracted and give it a click within hearing distance. They should acknowledge the click and come running - ready for their treat – success! Your dog has now been conditioned to the dog training clicker.
Next steps – capturing your dog's behaviour
Now your dog or puppy has successfully completed this first part, they are ready for the next steps! Now you need to choose the behaviour you would like your dog to perform. Some examples of behaviours include: sit, down, target training, recall, stay etc. I am going to use target training as an example: so maybe your pet has its own pet bed in the house or you want them to head to a marker on command. Every time your pet gets close to the bed or marker give a “click” (you can still give a treat every now and then to reinforce the click as something positive, however, this should get phased out so you are only using the clicker).
Start to withhold clicks until the dog gets closer and closer and eventually should hit the mark/bed. Great, they are now where you want them to be! You can now start to incorporate a word you would like to associate with the behaviour such as “bed” or “target” for example. Every time they reach the mark say the word you would like to use – eventually, you should be able to take the click away and simply say the word for the behaviour. And tada! You now have a brand new behaviour trained for your dog or puppy – now it's time to move on to the next trick using your clicker.