by Sally Gutteridge
Why and how do we clicker train dogs, what does it mean and why is the click such a hugely coveted reward? Read on to find out.
At its core, clicker training is a very simple process. When a dog performs an action, the clicker is used to indicate the action was correct and to end the action. Clicker training is based in learning theory, it works with how dogs learn, yet before we explore how it works let’s take a quick look at why.
Clicker training uses a popular learning tool called Reinforcement. When we reinforce something, we make it stronger. This is true regardless of what exactly we are reinforcing and it works in our own lives every day.
When we are rewarded for a behavior, we will often repeat the behavior many times in the hope of another reward.
Interestingly for people, reinforcement is often the reason for addictive behaviors.
Imagine the cycle of using a gambling machine. We put the money in and press a button many times until it pays out. We may win back some of the money and be worse off in the end, yet we keep popping another coin in the machine, because next time we might win and win big. We eventually often lose out but have great fun anyway.
The term for use of the machine is Positive Reinforcement. The reinforcement in this instance is the pay-out. The behavior being reinforced, is the act of keep putting the money back in.
When we use a clicker during dog training we can replace the pay-out with a click and treat. We can also replace the behavior of paying into the machine, with any behavior that we want to teach to the dog.
Clicker Training – The Dopamine
Part of the reason that a dog will repeat something is dopamine, the neurotransmitter that welcomes reward and increases motivation to get that reward again. The dog’s brain chemistry literally changes in response to a rewarding episode. When dopamine is triggered via any type of rewarding experience the dog’s memory grabs the occasion, learning becomes sharper and training is very successful.
Positive reinforcement in dog training increases memory, motivation and enjoyment, isn’t that amazing? Particularly when clicker training is right at the center of the positive reinforcement approach.
Introducing Your Dog to a Click
The clicker is so powerful because it’s attached to a food reward. To create the power, we must link the food to the reward in the dog’s mind. It’s easy to do this, you just spend three or four short sessions (no more than 6 minutes) clicking and giving your dog a tiny treat. This is known as charging or tuning. Any tiny treat will do, enough for a taste, but not enough to fill your dog up. Think about the effect that one square of chocolate has on your taste buds, as opposed to a whole block.
When your dog looks to you for a treat on hearing the click at a random time, you can be sure he’s made the connection. Remember to keep that connection strong hereafter by always rewarding the click, even if you clicked at the wrong time.
Using the Click
To start clicker training, use natural movements that the dog does often without prompting such as walking towards you or lying down.
You can click any behavior and add a cue to it and the dog will soon associate the cue with the behavior, then the behavior with the click. Before you know it, the dog will be reacting to your cue and the clicker can be phased out.
The rule is:
Helpful actions are met with a click/treat and unhelpful behaviors are ignored.
The dog will soon learn to repeat those positive actions much more, because they get him the pay-out.
Timing is essential because the click will certainly reinforce anything your dog is doing at the time. So, don’t click when he’s running away or ignoring you, because you are teaching him to repeat running away and ignoring you.
Finally, remember that practice makes perfect. You can find more advice in the following free classes.
Sally Gutteridge has been a full time educational writer since 2015 holding a variation of certifications. Qualifications include a Diploma in Life Coaching accredited by the CMA. A Dog Grooming Diploma earned at Oxford College, an ISCP Diploma in canine behavior and full graduation of the SNHS.
As a former professional Dog Trainer with both the Royal Army Veterinary Corps and Hearing Dogs UK she is now a qualified, accredited animal behaviorist with the ABTC through full membership of the organization Into dogs. Sally is also a member of the Pet Professional Guild and a graduate and award winner from The Writers Bureau.
Through the Organization Canine Principles, Sally along with a fantastic team, provides reputable Continuation of Professional Development for all canine professionals plus a variation of study routes for anyone that wants to further understand dogs.
Canine Principles only teaches the most up to date, positive, scientific canine awareness.