Clicker Training

Clicker Training

Hi everyone and welcome to the lecture on clicker training. If you are new to clicker training, this lecture will give you all the information you need to know to be successful at clicker training. If you have tried clicker training before and either didn’t find it effective for you and your dog or you just didn’t like it, you still need to go through this lecture. Clicker training is a very effective method of training and the majority of the reason owners struggle when first trying it is because they weren’t used correctly. All of the exercises we will go over in the next few weeks utilize a clicker. If you have clicker trained before successfully, still make sure to watch this lecture. I want to make sure everyone is on the same page and has the same foundation skills to be successful; and who knows, you may learn something new to clean up your mechanics!

So, what is clicker training? Clicker training is a form of positive reinforcement-based training that uses a device called a “clicker” to mark correct behaviors performed by the dog and signal that a reward is coming. Not all positive reinforcement-based training utilizes a clicker, so clicker training refers specifically to utilizing that device. Clicker training also focuses more on reward-based methods since we are marking correct behaviors and then reinforcing those behaviors with rewards. If you find you are punishing frequently, you are not clicker training effectively!

So, what exactly is a clicker? A clicker is a device that makes a specific sound and allows you to accurately mark a behavior that the dog has performed that will be earning the reward. The clicker acts as a “bridge” to let the dog know the behavior they did was correct and that a reward is coming. This allows the behavior to be paired with the reward that follows. For example, if we wanted to capture the dog looking at us, if we just wait for the dog to look at us, then give the dog a treat, you will notice frequently how the dog always looks more towards the hand or struggles with holding eye contact for too long; the dog may not understand what specifically they were doing to get the treat. If we wait for the dog to look at us, click at the moment of eye contact, and then reinforce, because the clicker acts as a bridge, the dog will understand what they were doing when they heard the click and that is why they earned the reinforcement. 

When we talk about motivation and food in the motivation lecture, you will hear me compare different treats to money because that is something of value that translates well for humans. Think of the clicker as a check. Both are predictive of rewards. A check is just a piece of paper with numbers on it, but because we understand that the check is of a monetary value once we cash it, the check itself still has value for us. Same for the clicker. The clicker always means a food reward is coming, so the clicker has value because it is predictive of the tangible reward of food. Both also allow you to understand what you did to earn the check or click and when. On a check, it may have listed the pay period it is for as well as who it is from which lets us know what job we did to earn that check. For a clicker, because it is used to mark the precise behavior, it will let the dog know what they did to get the ultimate reward at the end as well as when they did the behavior just a few moments ago. Both can also have varying values. A check means cash for us, but that cash amount can vary from $5 to $500 depending on what is written on the check. That check still has value because it equals money. Again with a clicker, there could be varying values of treats depending on the difficulty of what we are working on; the dog could earn a low value treat or a high value treat, but the click is predictive of a food reward, not necessarily the specific type of food reward, so that clicker still maintains value and strongly reinforces those behaviors. 

Why should you use the clicker over just saying “good boy”, “good girl”, “yes”, etc? One reason is due to clarity. The clicker makes a distinct noise that is differentiated from other noises. Our voices make noise all day long, but we don’t make clicking noises all day long, so that click noise will stand out. It also will not change pitch whereas our voices do throughout the day. The clicker is consistent in that it will always sound the same. Everyone in the house working with the dog can be equally effective if they use the clicker correctly because the value is the same no matter who holds it; everyone gets to be a check-writer! This isn’t The Little Mermaid where you can simply take out your voicebox and give it to someone else because the dog responds to their voice better. But the clicker can get handed off to anyone. The clicker is concise in that it makes a very quick, yet salient noise. Going back to our attention behavior, I can click the moment a dog’s eyes meet mine. If I used a verbal marker such as “good dog”, by the time that phrase gets out the dog may already have looked away which can create grey areas and confusion in the behavior we are trying to teach. The clicker is also contextual; we only use it when we are training the dog. We use the clicker a lot in that initial learning phase, but as the dog develops skills and we aren’t reinforcing with food as much, we will naturally start phasing out the clicker as well. This allows us to create a strong reinforcement history for behaviors we want, which then become habits for the dog. If you absolutely do not want to use a clicker, then another option would be to make a tongue click noise which is slightly more effective than verbal markers, but it may not be very consistent in pitch and tone and if not correctly done, won’t be very contextual either. 

Here are the order of operations to use a clicker: the dog performs a behavior either on their own, or if they already know a cue, we cue the dog, the dog performs the behavior, then we click, then we get our treat, then we deliver the treat to the dog. Now the get a treat option has an asterisk by it for a reason. If we want to keep our training clean, then we shouldn’t have treats in our hand already or our hands in our treat pouches. This creates the problem of dogs that “only listen when you have a treat in your hand”. That is not a problem you want to have to fix so try to have empty hands as much as possible. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule. One exception is if you need to deliver treats very quickly to the dog, especially in the first few weeks of training the dog where the clicker itself may be pretty new to the dog. However, you will want to phase that habit out very quickly otherwise the dog will become depending on you having a treat in your hand or a hand in your treat pouch.

For those that struggled with clicker training before, it was usually because it was used incorrectly and lots of errors were associated with it. The biggest error is clicking after giving the reward. The clicker is meant to mark the behavior specifically and let the dog know that a reward is soon to follow and it was for that behavior. If you treat the dog and then click after the fact, then the clicker was pointless. Going back to our check analogy, imagine if your boss gave you cash for the pay period and then gave you the check right after for that amount, but you couldn’t cash it since you already got paid. It would seem pretty pointless to have gotten the check. Same for the clicker. Always click first and then treat. Another error is clicking multiple times. One click = treat. If a dog finally gets the behavior and you excitedly click it multiple times, all you do is confuse the dog for giving the dog multiple voided checks and one check with a treat at the end. It lessens the value of the clicker and confuses the dog on the behavior you finally just achieved. If you get especially excited, you can click once and give multiple treats if you wish. Clicking and not rewarding the dog, even if you clicked on accident, is a big mistake that lessens the value of the clicker for the dog. Don’t punish the dog for your mistake. If you find you are frequently clicking the wrong thing or clicking on accident, we either need to go back to practicing mechanics before working with the dog again or we need to evaluate our training plan to make sure we are clear on what we should be clicking. And again, if we click with our hand in our treat pouch, then the clicker isn’t as relevant and the dog will become dependent on seeing the hand in the treat pouch. Regardless of training method, timing is extremely important! It is a mechanical skill as well as a cognitive skill. Practice makes perfect.

If you really struggle with hand-eye coordination, I would strongly recommend practicing with the clicker without the dog first and practice clicking and dropping a treat in a cup. This is how my skills got better when I was first learning to train dogs. This works best with a clicker that has a button like in the “supplies list”, not with a box clicker. I click with my ring finger and hold and deliver a treat with my thumb and forefinger. 

To practice the mechanics, don’t worry about asking your dog for behaviors. You are going to click and feed the dog no matter what the dog is doing, within reason. The dog is just there for you to practice with a live animal. You are going to click, reach into your treat pouch, get your treat, and deliver it directly to the dog’s mouth. Repeat the process consistently. If the dog is a little scared of the click noise, you can muffle it by clicking against your leg or into your stomach until your dog is more comfortable with the noise. The clicker is not a remote control to turn the dog on and off, so do not point it at the dog! 

Once you are comfortable using the clicker, then we can start teaching the dog they need to do things to earn the noise and then the food. You can either wait for a specific behavior, like the dog looking at you or sitting on its own, or you can cue the behavior of “sit” for example if the dog knows it very well. If the dog performs the behavior, you will immediately click the moment the bottom hits the ground, get your treat and deliver it to the dog. If you want to be extra prepared, throw a leash into the mix. Practice how you are going to hold a leash and click and treat with the other hand. Also, practice with both hands so you can be equally proficient if you can’t click and deliver with your dominant hand for some reason.

For me, it is easiest to click and deliver a treat holding it between my thumb and forefinger. If this is too difficult, there are other options for treat delivery from the hand. If you have a dog that is extra grabby with the treats to where it is painful, there are also options that require a bit less training to teach the dog to take treats from you. If you have a grabby dog, another option is using a fist to deliver the treat. You would hold the treat in your hand like in the video so it is almost inside your closed fist. Then when you deliver it to the dog, the dog has to lick to get it or if the dog bites, it can’t just grab it from your hand. Another option is what I call horse-feeding because it is how I fed horses as a kid. Feed out of the palm of your hand; it is very difficult for the dog to bite at your palms. This is also the method I typically have kids feed dogs out of since they tend to get their fingers nipped at the most. 

If you have a dog that is grabby and bitey when you deliver treats, I would strongly recommend teaching the dog how to take treats gently. You will not need to say anything to your dog like “no” or “gentle”, simply the consequence of not getting the treat right away is enough information that they took the treat too rough. When working on this initially, do not ask for any behaviors, simply focus on this as part of the steps of clicking and feeding the dog.

If the dog bites at your fingers, immediately take those fingers away without releasing the treat. Then offer the treat again without clicking again. If the treat is taken gently, release it so the dog can have it. If the dog bites again, immediately take the treat away as before and repeat until it is gentle. For some dogs this may take a few reps before the dog understands that biting hard is not going to get them the treat. If you are doing this constantly, practice a few times without the clicker and focus just on the feeding part. 

There are some mechanics on our end that may also cause the dog to grab at treats. Being very tentative and unsure while delivering the treat causes the dogs to get frustrated and grab. If you clicked, you have to feed anyway, so be deliberate about it. 

Delivering too high over the head also causes grabbing/biting and jumping. Deliver directly to where the dog’s muzzle should be. 

If we have properly taught the dog how to take treats gently and they suddenly get grabby again, it is usually an indicator of frustration or stress. If the dog is getting grabby with treats again, it usually means the task at hand is too difficult and we need to adjust our criteria and/or what is going on in the environment. 

Your homework before you do any work with the dog is to practice the clicker. First practice the mechanical skills by yourself without the dog. Practice holding the clicker, getting a treat and dropping it into the cup. When you feel you have mastered that skill, then incorporate the dog. To incorporate the dog, do NOT ask the dog to do anything or expect them to do anything. Just click, get the treat, deliver it to the dog’s mouth. Repeat until proficient and the dog is comfortable with the sound. Then step 3 is adding in behaviors so either wait for the dog to perform an easy behavior or cue something the dog knows VERY well. When the dog performs it, click, grab your treat and deliver it to the dog. Make sure to master this before going onto the bonus lecture about shaping.