As regular readers will attest, I love clicker training and have written about it on numerous occasions. Recently the Whole Dog Journal had a wonderful article by Pat Miller, called Clicker Training 101. She mentions that the origin of clicker training in dog training was due to the publication of “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor. With the introduction of positive reinforcement training to the dog world,
“clicker training” became a popular slang term for positive reinforcement training that uses a “reward marker” of some sort, and the clicker became the method’s emblem.
As much as I love clickers, I do recognize that clickers are not necessary for positive reinforcement training. What is necessary is clearly marking the desired behavior and following it with a reward.*
The secret to the clicker (or any other marker) is this: When beginning training, the marker is paired with a high-value reinforcer (most frequently a food treat) until the dog has made a classically conditioned association between the sound and the treat.
The marker is important not only because it clearly tells the dog the exact behavior that you are rewarding, but it serves as a bridge between the behavior and the reward. It’s not a remote control that elicits a behavior, it is a communicator that tells the dog, “You done good kiddo, and I will reward you for that!”
I have found that not only do clickers turbo charge your training by helping you clearly and quickly mark desired behavior, they also make training more fun for you and your dog.** A few years back we had three dogs, Hudson the Golden Retriever, Bingley the Flat-coated Retriever, and Buckley the Bernese Mountain dog, all of whom had experience with clicker training to one degree or another. Whenever I would reach for the clicker hanging by the back door, all three would get up and start throwing behaviors at me to see what would produce the magic sound and treats, knowing we were about to have some real fun. Buckley would instantly sit, and follow me around sitting whenever I paused. Hudson would play bow, spin, pet Bingley, and Bingley would spin, sit, grab a toy. Indeed, Bingley loved clicker training so much, that if he found one, he would put it between his front teeth, run to my office, stick his head in, and click the clicker at me. Thereby training me to play a great game of chase.
What delighted me the most about clicker training these dogs was their full commitment to it and the fact that it encouraged them to be curious, inventive individuals. Since there was no punishment for mistakes, only rewards for success, they would try all sorts of things. As a result, this is how Hudson learned to “pet the puppy.” My daughter Emma reached for a clicker when Hudson and Bingley were sitting next to one another. Hudson took his front paw and put it on Bingley’s neck. Emma clicked and treated, gave both a treat, and “pet the puppy” was born. Here is a video (no sound) of the part of the process where Hudson is learning the cue to pet Bingley. Though you can’t hear it, Emma tells Hudson to “pet the puppy.” She waits for his response, then marks it, and delivers a treat. Notice the rapt attention of the dogs on Emma, including our Spaniel mix Rebel, who isn’t part of the training, yet knows a good thing when he sees it! And, just an FYI, no puppies were harmed in the making of this video.
At the end of the training, Hudson was so skilled at gently placing his paw on Bingley’s back, that we started using this behavior in classrooms when we did bite prevention workshops. Hudson would sit next to a child and when we asked him, “Who’s your buddy?” he would put his leg over the shoulders of the child. It was enchanting, and never failed to delight the child.
So, if you are interested in trying something new, rewarding, and fun with your dog, get yourself a clicker, a bag of yummy treats and see what happens! You might be surprised at how quickly you both become hooked on training.
*Clickers are just one way to communicate with your dog. As mentioned, a verbal marker such as “Yes!” or “Good Dog!” in a happy, crisp tone will also work. If you have a deaf dog, try a flash of a pen light (which, by the way, is a great way to “clicker” train your goldfish to do play football!
**Clicker training can also be very effective when working with dogs with behavior issues. I use it with dogs who have very short attention spans, mouthy puppies, timid individuals, and even dogs with aggression issues. In fact, the only truly humane and effective way to help dogs with behavior issues is with positive reinforcement and the guidance of a good trainer or behaviorist skilled in behavior as well as reward based training.
For more information on the deleterious effects of punishment see:
And to find a behaviorist in your area to help with behaviors issues:
ASVAB: Find a Behavior Consultant
To find a trainer in your area:
Association of Professional Dog Trainers: Trainer Search (Your best bet on getting a positive reinforcement trainer is to limit your search to certified trainers)
Professional Pet Guild: Trainer Search
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