It’s no secret that I am a positive reinforcement trainer. I use food, toys, play, and praise for my training, and I won’t use punitive methods or physical force. As humans, we love to label things, and trainers often label themselves. You’ll see people call themselves “purely positive” or “balanced” or “traditional,” just to name a few. Even though I have always used positive reinforcement, I had never cared to label myself, until now. I’m not inclined to shout this from the rooftops and make this a point in every conversation or anything, but if asked, I will label myself a clicker trainer.
Let me back up… before I even brought Buster home at 6 weeks old, I had purchased a pack of clickers. I used them frequently while he was a puppy, but after puppyhood, they mainly sat on a bookshelf. I only used them here and there. I was never consistent with them, until now.
For about the past month, I have been consistently using a clicker with Buster, and I’ve seen such huge improvements in his training. I am a total convert and clicker training junkie now, and I haven’t entered a training session without one.
So, what is clicker training? Clicker training is simply using a mechanical device, which makes a distinct clicking sound (referred to as a “clicker”), to mark the animal’s correct behavior, which is then paired with positive reinforcement like food or a toy. Clicker training is a form of operant conditioning that was originally identified by B.F. Skinner, but that is a whole other scientific post for a later day!
Here are the 5 reasons that I use clicker training:
Most clicker trainers will tell you without a doubt that our #1 favorite thing about using a clicker is the absolute clarity it provides dogs. Basically, you click the exact second the dog is performing the correct behavior. The dog understands that click = correct behavior = reward. That distinct click is so much more clear and precise than even a verbal marker, like saying “yes!” We often muddy our verbal markers and say “yes!” one time and maybe “yesssssss” the next time and maybe even “yes, good boy!” the next time. Those variances in our precise wording and even tone can confuse the dog.
This is absolutely my second favorite thing that a clicker does, particularly in behavior modification work. That distinct clicking sound often provides a moment of interruption for your dog; by that, I simply mean that whatever your dog is doing when he hears that click, he will immediately turn back to you expecting his reward. For some reason, that click truly penetrates the silence and intense focus on another object much better than a verbal marker does. This can truly make all of the difference in behavior modification work, especially with something like dog reactivity. The biggest problem with dog reactivity is that the reactive dog continues staring at the other dog, which slowly makes him angry and escalate towards going over threshold. With a clicker, you can easily and quickly click for the reactive dog staring at the other dog and not reacting, and then the reactive dog will automatically turn back at you for a treat. This breaks that death stare, which never leads to anything good.
An unexpected bonus of using a clicker is that I became a better trainer. I am more cognizant, mentally focused, and pay closer attention in our training sessions. Since clickers mark the exact second in time that a dog is performing the correct behavior, I have to be very critical and aware of both mine and Buster’s movements to ensure that I am clicking at the correct time and conveying the right information to Buster.
- Fast results
As a positive reinforcement trainer, I usually shy away from anything or anyone that says they can provide “fast results.” Historically, this promise of fast results has been associated with aversive and punitive methods, such as shock collars or prong collars. In fact, most positive reinforcement trainers (myself included) will be absolutely upfront and honest and tell you that positive reinforcement training usually does take longer, but that is well worth the added trust and stronger bond you get by training with humane methods. However, I have to say that I have truly seen fast results with clicker training. I mean, this only makes since because it’s such a clear communication tool that is providing such absolute clarity to the dog. So naturally, if a dog understands exactly what you want from him with no questions, of course you’ll see fast results.
In my opinion, clicker training makes training easy. If I just want to get to training and don’t have enough time or energy (or maybe even have a headache) to sit and really think about and plan out our training session, all I do is ask myself, “What is the behavior I want to see and reinforce?” Then when I see that behavior, I click and reward. How easy is that?
A lot of people get worried or scared that they can’t handle a clicker and a leash and food or toy rewards or that their timing isn’t good enough, but I promise you that just as with everything else in life, practice makes perfect! If you’re just getting started with clicker training, just work on your mechanics with behaviors your dog already knows. Ask your dog to sit and then click and reward. Ask your dog to lay down and then click and reward. This will work on your mechanics and timing and also “charge up” your clicker that so your dog understands that the click = the correct behavior = a reward is coming.
If you’re still unsure, I’m going to leave you with one more piece of food for thought. Wild animals (dolphins, tigers, bears, hippos, giraffes, etc.) in zoos and animal sanctuaries are often trained using clickers. If it’s good enough for professionals to use in zoos to medicate and provide care to these ginormous and potentially deadly animals cooperatively and easily, isn’t it good enough for our dogs?
Comment below if you use a clicker and what you like about it, or if you’ve been wanting to but have been unsure on how to get started. Go ahead and buy a clicker and get started!
If you want to learn more about clicker training, I recommend checking out Karen Pryor’s website. She is a founder of clicker training and used it to work with dolphins in the 1960s. She also has her own training academy as well as several absolutely amazing books.