By Joan Orr M.Sc.
Clicker training. All the smartest dogs (and cats) in town are talking about it – but what is it exactly? A clicker is a small device that makes clicks when pressed. Pets love the sound because it always precedes a treat. The click is precise, it’s clear, it means the same thing each time. A trainer uses the click to tell the pet “Yes! That was right, you win!”. Soon the pet tries to do things to get its person to click. The person clicks and treats when the pet is getting closer and closer to the desired behaviour. This is fun for the pet and the person. It is similar to the “hot” and “cold” game we used to play as kids, but there is only “hot” in clicker training. If a pet makes a mistake the trainer just ignores it and manages the environment to prevent further mistakes. The absence of the click tells the pet to try again, try harder or try something else. There is no punishment, scolding or correction in clicker training. There is just a click/treat or no click. Clicker training is different from traditional training in that the trainer thinks about what the pet is doing right and works to increase it, while a traditional trainer thinks mostly about what is wrong and tries to correct it.
Clicker training is a fun game for both pet and trainer, and can produce highly reliable behaviour. Clicker training is used by the elite animal trainers of the world to train zoo and aquarium animals, free swimming navy dolphins, police dogs, drug and bomb sniffing dogs, service dogs, guide animals for the blind and movie animals. Anyone can learn to clicker train and any animal can be clicker trained. Even young kids and people with physical limitations can be great clicker trainers. Inmates in juvenile detention centres and families learning to reduce violence are clicker training shelter dogs in special programs that teach them empathy and how to interact positively with the dogs and people. Renowned Veterinary Behaviourist Dr. Gary Landsberg of the Doncaster Veterinary Clinic in Richmond Hill ON recommends clicker training as the most effective way to train a dog and to build a safe and loving bond with family members.
An Example – Teach a Puppy to Walk With You
Count out 10 treats. Walk around. When your puppy comes close click and toss a treat for him to pick up. Keep walking and repeat the click/treat each time the puppy comes close. Now choose a side on which you want the puppy to walk. Continue wandering about and click/treat only when the puppy is near you on the left side of you (or right side if that is your choice). When the puppy is consistently returning to your left side after he has picked up his treat, make it a little harder. Click/treat after you take one step with the puppy at your left side. Then increase to 2 steps, then 3, then back to 2, then 3, then 4. Mix it up so the puppy is not quite sure how long he needs to keep beside you to win the click/treat.
Move quickly and give lots of clicks/treats. Soon your puppy will be trotting along happily beside you waiting for his click/treat. Now give the behaviour a name so that the puppy knows when you want him to do this. When the puppy is walking beside you voluntarily, say the words “Let’s go”, then click/treat. Repeat this over and over at least 20 times while the puppy is actually in the right position. When you think the puppy might understand what “Let’s go” means, try saying this when the puppy is not beside you and see if he comes to walk beside you. If he does, click and give him a whole handful of treats, or an especially tasty treat.
If he does not come to walk beside you, go back to walking around and click/treating him for being in the correct position, while saying the words “Let’s go” when he is in the position. It may take many repetitions for him to connect the action of walking beside you with the words “Let’s go”. Once he does make this connection, he will be much faster to learn other cues since he will understand the concept that a spoken word from you can be associated with an action from him that will result a click/treat. Training sessions should last only a few minutes each. Once the 10 treats are gone, play with the puppy, give him a break and after a few minutes have another 10 treat session.
How Young is Too Young for Clicker Training?
It’s never too early or too late to start clicker training. Old dogs can learn new tricks! Some breeders introduce the clicker while the pups are still nursing. They start clicker training the puppies to teach them basic manners such as sitting for their food, keeping their paws off people and coming when called before they even leave the litter. Clicker training expert Teresa Lewin of Milton K9 Obedience in Milton ON suggests that you start clicking with your new puppy as soon as you get him home. The best way to get started is to train the puppy at dinner time. Use a portion of his dinner to teach him to sit and come to you and then let him eat the rest from him bowl. After a week or so introduce small, nutritious treats slowly into the training sessions. If you have a new kitten, ferret, bunny, bird or other pet you can start clicker training it right away as well.
Tips for Kids
Once an adult has taught the puppy to sit on cue and to wait for his food without rudely jumping and grabbing, then the kids can get involved. The best way for new clicker trainers to learn is for one person to click and the other to treat. Kids can just toss the treat on the floor for the puppy to pick up. Tossing the treats is a great way to deliver treats since it protects fingers and helps the puppy to focus on the click and the trainer and not focus so much on the hand with the food. It also resets the puppy for another try. If the puppy sits and gets and a click and the treat handed to him, he is still sitting and not ready to sit again. Getting up to get the treat resets him ready for another sit. To increase the sitting time, just wait 1 second and then 2 seconds etc after the sit and before the click.
Teach the puppy to touch a target. A metal spatula makes a good target since puppies usually don’t try to bite metal objects. Hold the target near the puppy, when he looks at it click/treat. Then click/treat when he takes a step toward it or even touches it with his nose. Click/treat each time he touches it and after a few tries, move the target so he has to follow to touch it. If the puppy has no interest in the target, try putting a tiny dab of cream cheese on it to get him started. Start saying the word “touch” when he touches the target. Once he understands about following the target use the target to teach him to come to you, walk beside you, spin in a circle, jump onto a chair, go to his bed and do just about anything without needing to drag him by the collar.
People always ask “Will I have to carry a clicker and treats around with me forever?”. The answer is no. The clicker is a highly effective training tool and you will probably want to keep using it forever to teach your dog new things and as a refresher if he ever starts to forget. You do not need to keep using the clicker and treats on a regular basis once a behaviour is learned. Because the training is all positive, the behaviours the dog learns with this method themselves come to be associated with positive feelings. The dog does not need to get a treat every time, or even very often once a behaviour is solidly learned. Petting and praise can replace the clicks and treats for the most part.
Dos and Don’ts of Clicker Training
- Click exactly as the behaviour happens
- Use really good treats
- Give a treat after every click
- Keep sessions short (5-10 minutes)
- Increase difficulty for the dog in baby steps
- Quit after a success
- Work in a low distraction area at first
- Work off-leash at first
- Scold, punish or use physical force
- Yank on the leash
- Click more than once
- Use kibble when liver is needed to keep the dog interested
- Train when you are in a bad mood
- Expect more than your dog can deliver
Side bar – History of Clicker Training
- 1904 – Pavlov discovers that dogs can be conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell that was previously paired with food, even when there is no food.
- 1938 – BF Skinner discovers that behaviour that is positively reinforced is repeated.
- 1942 – Keller and Marion Breland (Skinner’s graduate students) apply these principles to the training of pigeons to guide WW II bombs and later train over 140 species in their business, Animal Behavior Enterprises.
- 1960s – Karen Pryor co-founds Sea Life Park in Hawaii, creates spectacular dolphin shows and brings this new type of training into the public eye.
- 1984 – Karen Pryor writes the classic book “Don’t Shoot the Dog” that popularizes force-free training
- 1992 – Karen Pryor brings clicker training to the world of dog training (www.clickertraining.com)
- 2006 – Joan Orr and Teresa Lewin write the first book about clicker training rabbits.
www.clickertraining.com – Karen Pryor’s website for free getting started information
www.clickerbunny.com – clicker training for rabbits and other small pets
Clicker Puppy DVD – children training puppies with clicker training (www.doggonecrazy.ca/clickerpuppy)