Review and discussion of clicker training

Clicker Training for Dogs.

Among crazy dog people like myself, Karen Pryor is a household name. For the unfamiliar, Pryor is largely credited with spurring on the clicker training wave for household pets, especially dogs. Pryor, a respected scientist and researcher, began with a career in marine mammal biology and behavior. As she trained dolphins with clickers, she observed that the positive reinforcement principles behind this method of training would work brilliantly with dogs, cats, and other household animals. Her pioneering work in the positive training field has revolutionized much of dog training philosophy today.

This tiny little book is basically a pamphlet–I think it’s only 50 pages–but it’s a helpful pamphlet nonetheless. It’s the most basic form of a primer to the principles, methods, and steps to clicker training your dog. So, if you know absolutely nothing about clicker training and think you might want to try it yourself, this little booklet would be a good place to start.

I’ve read a more thorough guide to positive training with a clicker in Pat Miller’s The Power of Positive Dog Training, which I highly recommend, but I did want to read at least something by the founder herself. (I hoped I could get my hands on something more substantial, particularly her oft-cited Don’t Shoot the Dog!, but my public library doesn’t carry a copy and I’ve been buying too many books lately… Someday, I’ll get around to reading it!)

Clicker Training for Dogs reinforced my interest in clicker training, but I admit that I have hesitations. I know that it works wonders and that it’s the most efficient method to reinforce a dog’s behavior. But here’s why I hesitate: I’m not sure how reliable I would be with a clicker. I know that precise timing is everything. I also know that I’d need to have a clicker in hand almost constantly.

So, I’d like to open the floor. I’m curious: Are any of you clicker trainers? Do you have any advice for a novice trainer like myself? Is it something that I would need to do with my dog from the beginning? How did you figure out your timing? Do you have to carry a clicker with you everywhere?

Whew. I really want to do it, but I am anxious about my consistency. And, as you can tell, I have loads of questions. If you have any answers, even some generic advice, I’d love to hear it!

7 thoughts on “Review and discussion of clicker training

  1. So at first we started clicker training with all commands (sit, shake, etc.). Once Jake had picked up everything, we started using the clicker only for “come”–mostly because our house backs up on a pond with alligators, etc., and we wanted there to be a sure-fire way for him to come back if he spotted something he wanted to go after. So now we only take the clicker when we go into the backyard. I think using the clicker every day for the dog’s whole life for every command is a bit silly.

    Also whenever we put our dogs in boarding for vacation, my mom comes home, grabs all the clickers in the house, and clicks them madly while dancing around the house. You should probably do this, too.

  2. I am also a novice trainer and have found that clicker training is really awesome! The nice thing is that even though timing is important, you do a lot less damage by clicking at the wrong time than you do if you do something like a leash correction at the wrong time. I have found that Pearl is very forgiving when I mess up. Seriously, I click at the wrong time A TON and it’s still been really effective. The only thing you should never do is not follow a click with a treat. As long as you reinforce the click=treat thing you can’t really mess up that bad, IMO.

    We definitely do not use the clicker for everything. For example, using the clicker for loose leash walking was making me crazy, juggling leash, treats, and food was awful, so we came up with other methods that worked for me. We use it when teaching new commands (sit, down) and for fun tricks. It was GREAT for teaching her look/attention. It’s helpful when it seems like we are having a communication problem and we are having trouble communicating to Pearl what it is we want her to do. It really speeds up the process and she picks up things much faster, but we then fade the clicker out pretty quickly. We definitely don’t sit with a clicker around our wrist and treats in our pocket 24/7 or anything. We took her to a clicker-based obedience class and were surprised at all of the things that they recommended doing without the clicker. I have found that using a clicker at least some of the time is helpful, its not as hard to master as you would think, and its definitely something that you can use as much or as little as works for you and your dog. AND when you bring the clicker out your dog will get super excited and really look at training like a fun game, which is always good.

  3. This is actually a question that gets asked a lot more often than you’d think. The clicker is a tool used to communicate with your dog; once the communication is there and the behaviors are built, there’s no need to use the tool anymore.

    It’s meant to help build new behaviors or to refine old behaviors (a crooked sit, for example). While you can continue teaching your dog new things (and consistently using the clicker throughout his life this way), there’s no need to continue clicking for every single sit in every single situation after it’s learned.

    I’m sure you’re already aware of this, but you can use a verbal marker and still be using the clicker-training technique. The reason why it’s not advertised as much is because our tones of voice vary greatly when we’re training, and the click is *always* the same.

    As for timing, it takes practice, and it definitely helps to practice before you get the dog… but I’d actually advocate for practicing with dogs or with your dog (when you get him/her!) They are extremely forgiving once they learn that click=treat. In any case, you’ll get to see the result of bad timing and the results of good timing, and along with learning theory that’s being applied to dogs, it applies to you as well: the more often you’re given the results of good timing, the more likely you’ll time your clicks correctly. 🙂

  4. An excellent resource for explaining and demonstrating why clicker training is so effective, easy is Emily Larlham’s website:

    Her free videos are phenomenal. She uses the term “Progressive Reinforcement Training” which means:
    “A type of animal training exists that involves no forms of intimidation, confrontation, violence, reprimands, or domination.”

    The problem these days is that there is sooooo much misunderstanding as to what positive reinforcement means and even more misunderstanding with term clicker training. While it is true that you clicker training is based on using the sound of the click, the clicker is just a way to mark the exact moment when the animal achieved what you wanted. It’s basically like taking a snapshot or a photograph when you see the perfect shot. Working with both dogs and horses sometimes holding a clicker was not an option so I quickly learned to make the sound of the click with my tongue against the roof of my mouth.

    Also too, I train two ways….if my animals hear the sound of a click, they can expect a food reward. If I say a verbal ‘good’ then they don’t expect food, but can expect a pat or a scritchy scratch or something else that is motivating to them besides food. But most of the time I am seen with a fanny pack or treat bag as my dogs offer so many great behaviors I like to be there to capture the moment and make it memorable for them so they’ll repeat it. Another fun tip is to keep containers of dog treats (up high) in various places through the house so if something great happens, you can mark it with a click and you won’t be far from a tasty reinforcement.

    In my experience of rehabilitating troubled horses and now dogs the energy behind clicker work is based on ‘attracting’ the animal into the behavior rather than using pressure, force or pain. Once you’ve free shaped your first behavior this type of training becomes addictive because one, your animals feel great being with you, and you’ll feel great seeing how great your animals feels. After a training session sometimes my face hurts because I’ve been smiling so much! 🙂

    As for worrying about timing, it’s just a matter of training your eye and your thoughts to focus on what you want the instant it happens, instead of what we are traditionally taught to correct the incorrect behavior through punishment etc.

    I really think this type of training should be elevated to a spiritual practice because of how it engenders healing and such positive experiences for both participants.

    Also, Cathy Toft has an awesome and informative site:

    Best wishes!

    PS Have you researched the English Shepherd? I think you may really like them…..

    1. I am a novice with the clicker, however I hired a dog trainer expert, Of course I am nervous. Thanks Cheryl for giving me confidence. This training method is awesome…no scolding etc.

  5. I just got my new puppy Bear a week ago and he is now 8 weeks. I have already begun training him simple things like come/sit/lay down but have been reading a lot about clicker training and am really interested. Is it too late to use a clicker now that I’ve already begun training without it ?

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