One of the most exciting developments in dog behavior over the past few decades has been the development of clicker training. This approach, occasionally referred to as positive dog training, positive reinforcement, or click and treat, is one of the simplest and most effective methods for training dogs. Here’s the science behind this approach to dog training as well as an introduction to how you can begin using it.
What is Clicker Training?
Clicker training operates under a scientifically proven model called classical conditioning. In classical conditioning, an animal learns to pair two unrelated stimuli. So, for example, if a dog hears a bell ring every time the door opens, eventually she’ll begin to act like the door has opened when the bell rings. A clicker teaches a dog to pair the sound of a click with a treat. The clicker clicks every time the dog gets a treat, and the dog learns to associate the clicker with a reward. Eventually, however, the association between the clicker and the reward is so strong in the dog’s mind that the clicker is itself a reward.
Why is Clicker Training Effective?
Dogs believe that whatever happens right after they do something is the result of the thing they did. So, for example, if your dog sits and you give him a treat, but before you give him a treat he scratches his ear, he’ll actually think he’s being rewarded for scratching his ear. It can be difficult to reward a dog at the exact minute he does what you want him to, and this is where the clicker comes in. Rather than fumbling for treats, trying to get your dog to eat the treat, or watching your dog walk away after he’s done what you ask him to, clicking at the exact moment your dog exhibits the correct behavior “marks” the behavior. That way, when you do give your dog a treat, he knows exactly what he’s being rewarded for.
Dogs learn behavior based on repetition. Your dog has to repeatedly associate a behavior with a particular command to learn the command, and the clicker allows you to repeat the command perfectly over and over without fumbling for treats or wondering if your dog knows what is going on!
How Can I Start Clicker Training?
In order for clicker training to work, your dog first has to learn that the clicker means she has done something good. You’ll want to start by repeatedly clicking the clicker and then giving her a treat over the course of several days or weeks. After your dog begins to look for a treat when she hears a clicker, you can begin to use the clicker as a training tool. Give your dog a command and when she obeys, click the clicker and then give her the treat. When teaching your dog a new command, give her the treat every time the first five or so times. Then you can begin to only click as her reward. It’s important to always occasionally give your dog a treat after the click, so that she continues to associate the clicker with a reward.
Your dog can learn any command through clicker training. She can even learn to be less afraid of thunderstorms if you click and give her a treat every time a storm starts. Simply use the normal training program you have always used to teach your dog things, but work in the clicker and you are likely to see faster and better results!