Clicker Training is a training method where you train an animal using positive reinforcement by adding a clear event marker, the clicker, to tell them they’ve done the right thing – all with laser fast timing.
Nowadays, you can find clickers of all shapes and sizes. From the original box clicker, to a quiet clicker, a teardrop clicker and even a digital one as an app on your smartphone. There’s an app for everything these days.
How does Clicker Training work?
Clicker training works by operant conditioning – where the animal is doing something on purpose in order to get a click and a tasty reward – one that follows after the click every single time. It’s the rules ‘if you click you must treat’.
Here’s why clicker training works brilliantly. It’s a way for the dog to immediately understand what they did at that exact moment that is going to earn them a click and reward.
Personally, I find clickers to work well because it takes the human error part out of the training. The clicker is a neutral sound you see, you can’t sound happy or sad with a clicker. This means that the dog will always know what the clicker means without fail.
THE MORE YOU KNOW…When using verbal markers, your enthusiasm can change depending on so many things like your mood, weather, or whether your boss was tolerable that day or not. These can, in turn, confuse or affect the way your puppy understands whether they did a good job or not. So with a clicker, you can always be sure that the message is loud and clear.
PRO TIP: Clicker training can be used to train your puppy for complex tricks and behaviour such as going in into their crate and closing the door. It’s a spooky one, that one. Check this video out for some good ideas.
Let’s make it nice and simple. There are three main ways to train a behaviour with clicker training:
1. Luring – Using food to lure the dog into the position you want them to be in.
Example: Taking food from your puppy’s nose up above their head makes their bottom go on the floor and they sit. The click comes when their bottom is on the floor.
2. Capturing – When you see your dog doing something you like, click when they do it so they know they’ve done a good thing.
Example: If you decide that it would be cool to teach my puppy to do a nice long stretch ‘on cue’ (for some reason), click and treat them when you see them doing the stretch on their own and wait. Clicking and treating every time you see them doing the stretch, they’ll start wanting to offer the behaviour – it just takes some time and repetition.
3. Shaping – The clicker training method of shaping allows you to click and treat their steps (what we like to call successful approximations) towards the finished behaviour. You know the hot and cold game, right? The one that’s sometimes used as an icebreaker at awkward human meetings. The end behaviour is boiling hot, whereas the steps along the way are when you’re saying ‘freezing, cold, tepid, warm, warmer’ and so on.
Example: When teaching a puppy to go to a mat, first you click and treat them just for looking at the mat. Then again for stepping toward the mat, then having one paw on, then two paws and so on until they have all four paws on the mat and are lying down. This requires some problem solving skills on your puppy’s part, and for you to work out what you’re clicking for. Just so you don’t end up clicking and clicking like a woodpecker.
What is the right timing for the *click*?
The right timing to click your clicker is at exactly the moment the behaviour occurs. Not at the end of the behaviour, as your dog is likely to do something else.
Imagine a camera taking a picture that freezes that exact moment. The clicker acts like the shutter that takes a photo for the dog, of the precise time they did it. Got it?
Here is when to click your clicker when training your puppy:
- When you cue your puppy to sit, and their bottom hits the floor.
- When you cue your puppy to lie down, and they lie flat on the floor.
- When you’re training a recall. and your puppy is coming towards you – click before they actually get to you.
Step-by-step: How to Clicker Train your Puppy & get them familiar with the reward?
Your puppy needs to learn that the clicker is code for treats. ‘Charging the clicker’ is a process that’s gonna help you teach your puppy exactly that – that there is an association between this funny ‘click’ noise and super yummy treats.
The first step is to get yourself set up and ready to train.
First, grab a handful of those super yummy high value treats you’ve been using to train your puppy – your puppy’s regular food is not going to cut it for starting out with clicker training, by the way, let’s get the best treats to blow their minds! If you’re a bit unfamiliar with the amount of treats out there, see our article here.
If you’re right handed, have the clicker and a fair share of 20 tiny treats in your left hand. This leaves your other hand free to give your puppy the treat or lure them wherever you want them to be. If you’re struggling to have two things in one hand, just pop your treats in a treat bag.
How to charge the clicker
- Go to the room you spend most of your time in and sit down – free of distractions so you and your puppy can focus. Yes, this means telly off.
- Press the clicker once and release it. It will make a clunk-click or click-clunk noise – then throw a treat on the floor for your puppy to eat.
- Your puppy will likely look to you with those tempting eyes and want another one. Wait until they lose interest and then click and treat again.
- Keep going randomly clicking and treating. At this point, we’re not trying to reward or ask for any behaviour. Just make sure that each time you click, your puppy is doing something different.
- Once you’ve finished 20 treats, put the clicker and treats away and repeat this exercise a few hours later. Good job!
PRO TIP: Have several ‘charging’ sessions over a couple of days and you’ll start to see that your puppy becomes excited or looks to you for a treat when they hear that click. Works like magic, right? Well done.
What should I teach my puppy with clicker training first?
The most important thing to teach puppies is…their name!
Their name will be used, well, throughout their entire life, to get their attention for endless reasons; whether it’s to get them to pull away from raging traffic, or to come say hello to friends via Facetime. It’s a good move to teach them to respond to it super quick – playing the Name Game will do the trick.
Here’s how to teach your puppy their name with clicker training:
- Load up your treat pouch or hand with tiny yummy treats.
- Throw a treat on the floor to take your puppy away from you.
- Just as they’ve finished their treat, say their name in a clear happy voice.
- When they turn to look at you, click your clicker and then throw a treat the opposite way.
- Keep repeating this – call their name – click the switchback (where they turn to look at you) – throw the treat away from you
- Keep repeating this and turn the exercise into a fun game always throwing the treat across your body the opposite way.
Where to buy a Clicker?
You can buy dog training clickers in most places. We’ve linked a couple of good ones below, but I gotta say my favourite one is a button clicker – as I find it easy to use and hold while also holding treats. I also just like to press buttons.
Button Clicker – The Karen Pryor I-click is the original and the best.
Teardrop Clicker – This one’s quieter than the box clicker, you might like it if you’re not into sounds that much.
Box Clicker – The loudest and original clicker.
FAQ on Clicker Training
Clicker training is the application of marker training with operant conditioning and positive reinforcement training. Yes, it’s a lot of fancy words, but it’s essentially when the dog learns that what they did at the exact moment you clicked was good, and deserving of a reward. Yum.
Clicker training works like giving instant feedback to the dog. It lets them know that they got it right at the exact moment they did it, and it’s also great fun for everyone! Clickers are so satisfying, not gonna lie. Also, good to know that dogs learn through repetition. This means they repeat behaviours that are rewarded and then don’t repeat things which aren’t rewarding. Kind of like us with money to be fair…it’s simply the truth.
Start off by charging the clicker so they learn that the clicker equals treats. This won’t take them long at all; then try teaching them something easy like their name or a Hand Target.
You can find lots of exercises to teach your puppy in our ZigZag puppy training app.
When buying a clicker, look for:
– Loudness: Some puppies are a little sensitive to noise so it’s better to get a quieter one.
– A wrist strap: You’ll be less likely to drop and break it.
– Comfort: How comfortable it feels in your hand – I like the button clickers most.
– Your favourite colour: Don’t want to be using something that doesn’t bring you joy. Use this advice as you wish.
Yes! If you have a deaf dog, you can use a small torch, or a thumbs up hand signal – see here for great deaf dog training advice from The Deaf Dog Network.
Yes! You can use any kind of event marker – keep it neutral though, a tongue click, ‘yes’ ‘good’ can all be used just like a clicker.
For more information on clicker training – why not go to the horses mouth and completely geek out over on the clicker training website. Yes, it’s an entire website dedicated to clicker training.
If you’d like to train your puppy with positive reinforcement and marker training (using a clicker isn’t compulsory if it doesn’t float your boat) then check out our ZigZag puppy training app. You’ll find all the answers there. Yes, all of them.