What Is It?
A clicker is a small, handheld device with one button that, when pressed, makes a distinct “click-click” sound. In dog training, the clicker is used to mark the exact moment the desired behavior occurs, and to let the dog know that they have gained access to reinforcement. A clicker is a “marker” - it marks the behavior. A clicker is a “bridge” - it fills the gap between the time between when the behavior happens and when the treat gets to the dog’s mouth. It’s also what’s known as a conditioned reinforcer - when the dog learns to associate click with treat, you’ll see them start to get excited just by hearing the sound!
How Do I Use It?
There are three parts to using a clicker effectively: get the behavior you want, click the behavior at the same time it’s happening, reinforce the behavior with a treat.
Get the Behavior You Want: there are many ways to get your dog to perform a behavior you want, which I will cover in a future blog post. As you practice using the clicker start with something very easy that the dog already knows or something the dog does naturally.
Click the Behavior: think of it as if you’re taking a picture - if I saw that picture you took with your click, I should see the exact behavior you wanted from your dog. Timing the click is a critical part of clicker training.
Reinforce the Behavior: after you’ve clicked the behavior you wanted, deliver a treat to your dog. Don’t start to reach for the treat until after your click, or your dog won’t pay any attention to the click. They’ll be too distracted knowing where your treat hand is headed.
Let's See It
Here's a video of me using a clicker to practice two cues with an adorable baby Frenchie. I cue "crate," click the moment four paws are inside the crate, then place a treat inside the crate. I say "free," click when he leaves the crate, and deliver the treat by my feet.
Clicker vs. Verbal Marker
If you've heard of a clicker, then you've probably heard of another technique - saying a word as a marker in the same way that a clicker is used. Studies have been conducted comparing the training progress of dogs taught using a marker word, “yes,” with dogs taught using a clicker. The dogs in the clicker trials always progressed through the training faster, requiring 83 reinforcers to reach the goal behavior versus 126 needed for the "yes" dogs. If you're like me, striving for effective and efficient dog training, then you'll be wise to reach for the clicker.
The clicker's efficacy is attributed to a few key factors. The clicker sounds the same every time. Even if we try our hardest, there will always be vocal variation in our words. The clicker is distinct from other things the dog hears. We talk a lot, so it’s easier for a dog to attach meaning to something that sounds different from our voice. The clicker is brief, so it can be timed very precisely.
Some tasks really are better accomplished with a verbal marker for the simple fact that humans only have two hands. Say I'm teaching my dog to hold still while I pick up a paw and bring nail clippers toward a nail. I want to mark the moment the clippers touch his nail, but one hand is holding the paw and one is holding the clippers. In this case, I use a mouth click. I find this to be more effective than a marker word because it has many of the same qualities as a handheld clicker - it's distinct, it's precise, and I can make it sound pretty much identical each time.
A Click Is a Promise! Never click unless you can follow the click with a treat. Clicking without treating breaks down the clear communication that you can have with your dog. Even if you “click wrong” or by mistake, still give your dog a treat! No solid training can be undone by one oopsie click - the worst that will happen is your pup gets an extra cookie!
One Click = One Treat. Never click multiple times without delivering a treat between each click. This doesn’t add emphasis for the dog, but rather confusion. Clicking three times when your dog executes an exemplary sit won’t tell him that sit was better than the others. Instead, to really celebrate a job well done, reward your dog with several treats in a row or a particularly delicious treat. Treating multiple times, rapid-fire after one click can sometimes drive home the idea of “great job!” Clicking multiple times, rapid-fire before one treat cannot.
It’s Not a Remote Control! So, you don’t need to point it at your dog for it to work. In fact, dogs have more sensitive hearing than we do, so putting the clicker too close to their ears can actually be startling or painful. Try holding the clicker at your side or behind your back.