Have you ever wondered why many dog trainers use clickers? They are not a punishment, nor are they a reward for your dog. They are actually a wonderful way to clear up communication between you and your dog. In this blog post, we'll delve into the basics of clicker training, why it's essential, and how it can benefit both you and your furry friend.
The clicker is a simple yet powerful tool in dog training. It serves as a marker, predicting something good to come – whether it's a tasty treat, heartfelt praise, or even playtime! One of the key advantages of using a clicker is its ability to buy you those crucial extra seconds to reward your dog while effectively conveying which behavior you're reinforcing.
How to "charge" your clicker:
Dogs do not come with an innate understanding of what a clicker is. Trainers use it because it is a short, distinctive sound that can be made easily and reliably. Your dog could just as easily be conditioned to the sound of you gently shaking your keys, snapping your fingers, or saying “yes!”, which happens to be another common marker used by dog trainers.
Don’t fret! It takes very little time and effort to teach your dog how the clicker works.
Set aside five minutes two to three times a day for about a week. You can use treats, or simply your dog’s regular food.
In each five minute session, press the clicker, then hand feed, drop, or toss a treat to your dog. Repeat this about 20 times per session. Don’t worry about getting your treat timing perfect- that’s what the clicker is for! As long as the treat is delivered within three seconds of the click, your dog will quickly learn that the clicker predicts food.
Why do we need clickers?
I’ve worked with many dog parents who tell me that they never used a clicker because it seemed too complicated, and like it wasn’t worth it. I want to give you a few examples of why using a clicker (or a marker word such as “yes”) is completely worth the effort:
1. Teaching Eye Contact and Helping Your Dog Refocus on you when there are Distractions in the Environment
One cue I love to teach young puppies is eye contact (often called “look”). This cue is incredibly easy to teach if you are using a clicker, but timing is very important and is difficult to achieve without one. When you are teaching a puppy to give you eye contact, at first they may only make eye contact for a brief moment before looking away. If you reach into your pocket to give them a treat, the moment has already passed, and you are now rewarding them for the behavior of looking towards the squirrel across the street instead! With a clicker, you can mark the exact moment that your puppy made eye contact, making it very clear to them what they are being rewarded for, and making them more likely to repeat the behavior.
2. Teaching "Lights"
In my time training service dogs, one of the tasks I enjoyed training the most was teaching dogs to turn on and off light switches. This task is one of many that a dog needs to be able to perform at a significant distance from their handler. So if I have a dog run across a room to a light switch, and put their paws up on the wall, but today they actually put the switch in their mouth instead of just looking at it, how do I tell them that I want more of that specific behavior? If I toss a treat, our communication can get foggy, and the dog can think that the treat was for a different placement of their paws, looking at a spot on the ground, or even for the moment when they took their mouth off of the switch.
What about Deaf Dogs?
While clickers are sound-based and unsuitable for deaf dogs, with creativity, you can still train them effectively. A common alternative is using a thumbs-up sign as a marker, but you can choose any visual cue. Dogs often find hand signals more intuitive than words, and this method works well for deaf dogs. Deafblind dogs can also be trained by tapping into their heightened tactile senses.
How Does This Help You?
Your dog may not need to learn how to operate a light switch, but you undoubtedly request various behaviors from them daily, whether consciously or not. Learning clicker training is a game-changer in terms of communication and mindset. During your walks, bring a clicker and treats, rewarding desired behaviors to decrease problematic habits. If your dog tends to pull on the leash, use the clicker to reward moments of slack in the leash.
In conclusion, clicker training and positive reinforcement are not about the tools; they are about saying "no" less and "yes" more, creating a stronger bond and better understanding between you and your beloved canine companion.