Credit: Petco

Clicker training utilizes the power of positive reinforcement to shape your dog's behavior. It is a surprisingly easy technique to learn and is fun for both you and your dog. At the most basic level clicker training consists of two steps. First you teach your dog to associate the sound of the sound of the clicker with the reward. Then you click when the dog offers the desired behavior, gradually shaping and refining the behavior. All that you need to get started is an inexpensive clicker that you can buy in any pet supply store and a supply of your dog's favorite treats.

Step 1: Pair the Sound of the Clicker with a Reward

You want your dog to learn that the sound of the clicker means that something really great will soon follow. You can easily do this by treating your dog to her favorite food immediately after she hears the clicker. Here's how to work this:

  1. Pick food that you dog really enjoys like cheese or liver bits. You want to give very small pieces of food to minimize chewing time and to make sure that your dog does not get full too quickly and lose interest.
  2. Click the clicker and then immediately give your dog a piece of the treat. The timing of this is incredibly important. There should be no lag time between the click and the treat.
  3. Repeat the click and treat sequence many times in rapid succession. 
  4. Test to see if you dog has learned to associate the treat with the click. To do this, click the clicker but withhold the treat. Notice how your dog reacts to this. If she looks puzzled, excited, or looks around for the treat this means that she knows that "click" = "treat". You'll know when she's made the connection; it will be obvious.
  5. If your dog has made the connection between the sound of the clicker and the food reward then you are ready to move to shaping behavior. If she hasn't made the connection yet then just keep repeating the click and treat sequence as many times as necessary. The connection will probably happen in the first session but if it takes longer that's ok too. Your persistence and patience will pay off. 

Step 2: Shape the Desired Behavior

Next you are going to click when your dog offers the desired behavior and follow this with the treat. Here's an example of this gradual process using the sit command.

  1. Hold the clicker in your left hand and the food treat in your right hand. 
  2. Stand in front of your dog and then raise your right hand up and above your dog's head.  This will cause your dog's head to raise and her butt to lower (the beginning of a sit).
  3. As soon as that butt begins to lower, click and then immediately treat.
  4. Repeat steps 2 - 3. Your dog is now learning that sitting leads to reward. Hooray!
  5. Next you can say the word "sit" as you are raising your right hand up and above the dog's head. Again, click and treat as soon as your dog initiates the sit. Repeat to reinforce.
  6. At some point your dog might just offer up the sit without you having to move your hand or say "sit". That's great. Go ahead and click and treat for that.
  7. At first you are going to click and treat your dog for starting to sit. Over time you will refine that so that the dog only gets the click and treat when she is all the way in the sit. Eventually you may require that she remains in the sit for a certain period of time before you click and treat. This gradual refinement over time is known as shaping.

You can use a similar series of steps to train any behavior. You will break the goal behavior into a series of steps. Begin by rewarding any behavior that even crudely approximates the goal. Gradually become more and more exacting about what you will reward. Take your time with each step, the goal of this style of training is to make the training sessions fun for both you and your pet.

Tips for Success

  1. Keep each training session short, especially if you are working with a young puppy. It's better to work multiple short sessions that are fun and high energy than in a single session that becomes tedious and tiresome.
  2. Alway end each training session on a high note. 
  3. If your dog spontaneously offers some new higher level of the behavior then go for broke with the treats and the praise. Give her a big jackpot of treats and then end the session immediately. She'll remember what a big positive deal it was when she did that new thing and will be much more likely to do that again in the future.
  4. Schedule a training session after your dog has had some exercise. The exercise will help your dog burn off her excess energy and she will be more relaxed, focused, and open to learning.
  5. There will be no use of punishments like yelling, choke collars, shock collars, prong collars, or any type of physical force. 
  6. Train consistently.
  7. Take your time with your lessons. You and your dog will be together for a lifetime; there's no need to rush through this and create anxiety for yourself and your pet.
  8. Consider working with a trainer who specializes in positive training methods. This can be especially helpful if you are a first-time dog trainer. A great trainer can show you how to shape behaviors and then you can practice with your dog at home. But you don't have to have a trainer; you can do this yourself too.
  9. Read Karen Pryor's "Don't Shoot the Dog". It's an entertaining and enlightening introduction to using positive reinforcement techniques to train all kinds of animals from dogs to whales to fish. 

Your Turn

Clicker training is a wonderful way to train your dog. It helps to build a strong, loving, and mutually respectful relationship between dog and human. Be persistent, patient, and consistent. You can use this method to train nearly any behavior that you can imagine and turn your dog into an outstanding, well-mannered companion.