• Sally Gutteridge

Clicker Training for Dummies!

How do we clicker train, why not just use the food and what does the clicker mean to the dog anyway?

I asked in the Canine Principles Study and membership group yesterday “what would you like me to write about” I should have learned really because this type of question tends to get me into trouble. Last weekend for example I found myself running a 180 seat conference, because I asked the group what they wanted. In fact – before we go onto clicker training, here’s a life lesson – get yourself an excellent, keen and positive tribe and ask them what they want! They will undoubtedly take you out of your comfort zone in a good way, you won’t regret it.

First we tune the dog into the sound. This is making an association between the food and the sound, so the dog hears a click and knows that food comes next. The click then has the same effect as a reward, the correct terms are:

  • Food: primary reinforcer because it meets a life need.

  • Click: secondary reinforcer as a bridge to the food.

Make the food tiny and tasty. Like an exquisite taste of chocolate for us (but obviously not chocolate for the dog) it should be tasty and tiny, so the dog wants more but isn’t distracted by chewing. Then spend a few sessions clicking and rewarding, without really asking for anything from your dog. At this point you’re creating the bridge. Test by waiting for your dog to be doing something and click, if she runs to you – the bridge is complete.

From this point on you must always reward the click – otherwise it will lose its magic power. Even if you accidently click a bark when you’re trying to click silence – reward it, it’s not your dog’s fault that your timing needs practice. The other thing to remember is that your dog will associate whatever she’s doing with a reward – and she will repeat it – so don’t click to get her attention if she’s ignoring you, or you will be teaching her to ignore you.

Then you can start using positive reinforcement (making an action stronger by adding something into the situation – a treat in this case) with your clicker by capturing your dog’s choices. If she chooses to sit, click and reward. If she chooses a loose lead on a walk, click and reward or when she’s off lead and checks in with you, click and reward (not too often on the last one or she won’t relax enough to explore)

You can also lure and capture. For example, if your dog is pulling on the lead, put a reward closer to your legs and click as the lead slackens – capturing the slack lead. Or if you are teaching your dog to stand with all four feet on the ground, hold a treat at her nose height and click as she stands. Luring is good for low confidence dogs because it’s much better that they get something easier right then struggle, or they may give up.

Shaping is also an option. If you want to teach a certain choice but it’s a difficult choice for the dog to learn, you can break it down into smaller choices and teach them separately. This is called learning by approximations and is also excellent for dogs with low confidence. For example, if you have a low cardboard box and want to teach your dog to stand in it (purely for fun) you can teach every act that gets her there. When she looks at the box, click. When she touches with one paw, click and so on.

So, clicker training is pretty simple really and the hardest bit is the timing, clicking at the right time is far from simple and can teach your dog all sorts of things they will perform forever. So, you might be teaching your dog to stand all four paws on the ground but accidently click when she looks left, leaving you with a dog that has learned to look left for the rest of her life, when there’s a chance of any reward for it at all.

It’s not the same for every dog, either. Some dogs are speedy movers whilst others are deliberate thinkers. A speedy dog might sit, stand, roll over, swipe and bark all whilst you’re are trying to click something else altogether. Thinkers can be low or high confidence. A high confidence thinker needs the time gap to work out what we are waiting for, so she can offer it. A low confidence thinker needs regular rewards for the smallest movement towards success or he will give up and walk away (to offer confused behaviours such as sniffing or scratching – as an attempt at changing the subject)

To summarise, the rules of clicker training. Always deliver if you click, don’t click for recall or to get your dog’s attention and most importantly make sure you put the time in to know your dog. How is her confidence? How does she learn? Are you catering to her ability, self-belief and are you engaged with her as the unique, wonderful individual learner that she is?

Here's a book that goes into more detail on how to teach your dog positively!

Or in paperback here.

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©2020 by Sally Gutteridge.