ClickerSolutions Training Articles

The Keys to Successful Clicker Training

As the word about positive training techniques spreads, more and more people are giving clicker training a try. It's a terrific technique, because when done correctly, it enables the trainer to do the one thing that was missing in other methods: communicate that the dog has done something that you like.

Unfortunately, many people don't do it correctly. They use the clicker wrong, or don't reinforce after each click, and their results aren't very spectacular. They get frustrated and quit. Worse, they tell people, "It's a gimmick. It doesn't work."

Clicker training isn't a gimmick. It does work. But you must do it correctly. The following keys will help you unlock the secret of successful clicker training.

Key #1: Use an effective reinforcer.

A common complaint is, "My dog isn't food motivated." If your dog weren't food motivated, he would be dead. Your dog may not be hungry or may not like what you're offering, but that's not the same as not being food motivated.

If you free-feed your dog, change to scheduled feedings. Why should a dog work for a treat if it can eat for free whenever it wants? Still not motivated? Take a look at your dog's waistline. You may be overfeeding. Even steak isn't appealing when you're full. Cut back on the amount your feeding at meals and feed it as training treats. Train before meals, so your dog is hungry.

Remember, also, the DOG determines what is an effective reinforcer. If the dog doesn't want what you're offering, it's not a reinforcer! You may want to use kibble, but if your dog prefers garlic chicken, well....

To figure out what your dog likes, get a supply of a variety of treats. Present them to your dog two at a time and make a note of which he eats first. Through the process of elimination, you can figure out exactly what foods your dog most likes. Believe it or not, I know a dog whose favorite training treat is a spritz of water in the mouth and another who adores green beans! Most dogs prefer smelly treats like cheese or liver.

Key #2: Use the reinforcer correctly.

Once you have an effective reinforcer, another key to successful clicker training is using the reinforcer correctly. A reinforcer is presented AFTER the behavior, not used to induce it. If you regularly use food to induce the behavior - holding up a treat to get your dog to come to you, for example - the treat becomes part of the context of the behavior. The dog won't perform the behavior without the treat present because THAT'S HOW IT WAS TRAINED.

Some people use food lures when they are first teaching a dog a new behavior. If you choose to do this, fade the food - lure with just your empty hand - after only a few repetitions. The more repetitions you do with the food present, the more dependent on the food the behavior becomes.

If possible, keep the food off of your body entirely. Put it in a dish nearby, and actually walk to get it after each click. Work on attention from the very beginning, so the dog learns to focus on you instead of the treat. If the dog is staring at the clicker or the treats, don't click until he's focused on you again.

Key #3: Use the clicker as an event marker, not a reward marker.

The third key to clicker training success is using the clicker correctly. Timing is everything. The proper time to click is at the exact moment the dog does what you want -- like taking a picture of the event.

Most people click late. If your timing is off, the clicker becomes a treat marker, not an event marker. While it still serves as a reminder to the trainer to focus on the positive, it isn't fulfilling its primary purpose: it isn't communicating to the dog which behaviors are reinforceable.

Timing - being able to click at the exact moment the dog offers the behavior you like - is a mechanical skill. Like any mechanical skill, it requires practice. Have a friend drop a ball, and try to click just as the ball hits the floor. The sound of the bounce and the sound of the click should be simultaneous. Have your friend vary the height from which he drops the ball. As he gets closer to the floor, you'll find you have to observe his behavior much more carefully.

The point at which you click a particular behavior may change at different stages in training that behavior. For example, when you first start training sit, click the motion - click just before the butt hits the ground, because it's the act of sitting that you want to reinforce. Later, you'll want to increase the duration of the behavior, so you delay the click longer and longer.

In another example, when I'm first training the recall, I click as soon as the dog turns his head in response to the cue. I want to emphasize that quick response, that quick turn. Later, I might be shaping a fast return, so I click when he's running to me - but only when he's running. Then I might concentrate on automatic sits at the end, so I wait and click as he offers a sit.

Just as timing is a mechanical skill, learning to judge when to click is also a product of practice and observation. This brings us to our final key to successful clicker training:

Key #4: Train responses, not behaviors.

The final key to effective clicker training is learning to split behaviors into individual responses. Once you learn not only how to split behavior, but how to evaluate your progress and increase criteria at the right pace, training becomes incredibly efficient.

In the beginning, we tend to start with very simple behaviors. Sit. Lie down. Touch a target. Come to me. Walk beside me. Eventually, however, we want more. We either want a very precise behavior: I want a tucked, square, fast sit. Or we want a complex behavior: I want you to, on cue, go straight out, pick up a dumbbell, turn tightly, come quickly back, sit directly in front of me, hold the dumbbell until I give a cue, then drop the dumbbell into my hands.

To train these behaviors, we need to learn to break a behavior into its component parts - its individual responses. Sometimes even a seemingly simple behavior - like a precise sit, in the above example - is really quite complex. To minimize confusion to the dog, teach each individually response separately.

For example, I start by accepting any sit. When the dog is freely offering sits, I begin to accept only tucked sits. If necessary, I find a way to induce tucked sits, so the dog will have a high rate of success. When my dog is offering tucked sits 80-90% of the time, I begin looking for tucked, square sits. And so on, until I have shaped exactly the sit I want.

Once you learn to split behavior, literally anything the dog is physically capable of, you will be able to train it to do.

And you and the dog will have fun doing it.

What more could anyone ask?

Melissa Alexander
mca @
copyright 1999 Melissa Alexander


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