To begin with, to train your dog with a clicker, we need to associate its sound with something pleasant – a reward. The easiest way to do it is to use food. Prepare your dog’s favourite treats and a clicker (you can buy it in almost every pet shop). Stand in front of your dog, press the clicker and then give your dog the treat. Do several repetitions. Practice this for a few days until you notice that your dog is interested in the sound and expects food from it.
Then you are sure that the association has been built and you can start using the clicker in training. From now on, the sound of the clicker will inform your dog that he is about to receive a reward, and you will be able to indicate much more precisely the behaviour for which you are rewarding him.
For our training to be effective, we need to remember a few rules when working with the clicker:
1. Click at the right moment – with the clicker we mark exactly the behaviour we want to reinforce. We must be careful not to click too early or too late. Think of the clicker as a camera with which you want to take a picture of the behaviour you want to achieve in training. It is useful to have good reflexes for this, so you can practice dry (without the dog present) for example with a ball that you bounce off the floor or toss and click when it is at its furthest point.
2. After the click, we must always give the dog the promised reward – this means that even if we make a mistake or if we click by accident, we must reward the dog so as not to spoil the association that has been built before. Next time, just remember to click at the right moment.
We only click once – in one repetition of the exercise, we mark the behaviour to the dog with one click and we always give a treat afterwards.
4. The clicker is not used to get the dog’s attention- we never use the clicker to get the dog’s attention or recall. We already know that the clicker is used to mark specific behaviours. So, if we wanted to focus our dog’s attention on us when he chases the cat, we would make him perceive this as something positive and he would replicate this behaviour in the future.
A clicker is a great tool that we can use to teach many behaviours. The simplest method for working with the clicker is so-called homing. It is a method in which we guide the dog to the position we want to achieve with our gestures and hand with a treat – then we click and reward the dog. In this way, we are quickly able to teach our dogs various behaviours. One of them, for example, is the bow trick, i.e. a position in which the dog bends its front paws with elbows touching the ground, while its back remains up as in a standing position. It looks as if the dog is bowing to us. To teach your dog this trick, prepare a treat in one hand and hold a clicker in the other. Get your dog interested in the treat by holding it at the height of his nose, then with your hand, slowly direct it between the dog’s front paws. Many dogs at first quickly lower their backs to the ground, and soon after as they bend their paws.
The clicker will allow us to mark the right moment so that the dog will understand that we meant a nod and not a lying down position. Click when your dog bends his front paws, but he’s back paws are still standing. Repeat the exercise a few times, until your dog starts to present the bow himself, wanting to receive a treat.
The second training method in which we use the clicker is shaping.
It differs from guiding in that here we do not prompt the dog with our gestures, but only mark with the sound of the clicker behaviours that are getting closer to the target behaviour we want to achieve. The easiest way to illustrate this method in practice is to use the example of a command to sit. First, sit with your dog by its bed and wait for your pet to move. Then, use the clicker to indicate behaviours that will bring your dog closer to the bed – a glance in the direction of the bed, the movement of one paw, the movement of the other paw, a step towards the bed, the entrance of one paw inside, and so on, until the whole dog is inside. Once you have achieved the behaviour you wanted, reward your dog with a series of treats. Behaviours achieved with this method are usually more lasting and dogs are happy to show them – after all, they came up with them themselves! When your dog first encounters shaping, he may be looking for hints and tips, but don’t give them to him. Work with your dog in very short training sessions and introduce a command to shape, e.g. combine – this will make learning even more clear and more pleasant for your dog. And once he gets to know this method of working, he will be happy to offer you various new behaviours on his own.
Clicker training greatly accelerates the learning of new behaviours and thanks to it our communication with the dog in training becomes much clearer for him. This is because the sound of the clicker is a clear and very precise signal for the dog. Additionally, it is always the same – it is never sick, tired or angry, unlike our voice. You can buy a clicker in almost every pet shop and its cost is only a few zlotys.
You already know how to start your adventure with the clicker, so … get to work!