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Clicker Training: The Science

The science behind this popular method of training

What is a clicker?

A clicker is a small plastic box that makes a short, distinct 'CLICK-CLICK' sound when the button is pressed.

Different types of clickers make slightly different sounds. The ones I tend to use at Amy Millward Dog Training are softer and quieter than some which makes them suitable for nervous or sensitive dogs.

Why use a clicker?

It is possible to use another sound (such as a word), but clickers will always sound the same, no matter who is using it. This is especially important as it enables the dog’s family members to be consistent when training away from class. 
I find clickers very beneficial for households where more than one person will be training the dog as it is nearly impossible for everyone's voice to sound the same. 

If you decide to use a word instead of the clicker you will have to say it in the exact same way every single time, which can be very difficult as your voice changes with your mood. 


How does it work?

Clicker training works by telling your dog exactly what he or she is doing right. Basically you click the exact moment your dog doing something good and then follow up with a reward (food or play).

It all works through a little thing called Classical Conditioning (learning through association). The sound of the clicker is paired with something rewarding (usually food), so when your dog hears the click they know they have earnt a reward. And because most dogs LOVE food they will work out what they were doing when you clicked and do it again. And again. And again. Remember: behaviours that get rewarded will get repeated!



What is Classical Conditioning?

Classical Conditioning is one of the ways in which an animal, including us humans, learn. It's all to do with associations between two stimuli resulting in a learned response. 

Have you heard of Pavlov's dogs? That's Classical Conditioning!

Basically, the dog learns that when he hears a bell (or clicker) food is coming. He is conditioned to expect food when he hears a bell (or clicker), this expectation is an automatic response and not in the dog's control.

A human example happened to me when I visited my secondary school 3 years after last being there. I was sitting down talking to my old art teacher totally relaxed when the school bell rang, when I suddenly grabbed my bag and jumped up. I had no control over my actions and no idea what I was doing! After years of hearing the bell and then leaving class to go to lunch I must have been conditioned to jump into action when I hear the bell. Never have I seen my teacher laugh so hard, but then so did I!

Clicker Training creates this same response in your dog, only difference is they feel happy and expect food rather than run out of the classroom.

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Why train this way?

Clicker training is a very fast and enjoyable method, once the basics are mastered your dog can learn a huge variety of behaviours. 

Training is so fast as the click pinpoints exact behaviour you want so your dog will learn amazingly quickly—often from one, two, or three clicks! The clicker provides a consistent, non-emotional marker so your dog always receives the consistent information. The clicker is also distinct from other noises and will always sound the same. For this reason, Clicker Training can be used by everyone in the family without sending conflicting information to your dog. 


And because clicker training doesn't rely on punishment, force or aversive methods to get results, your dog won’t be afraid of trying something new and will build a trusting relationship with you and your family. However, the clicker is only as good as it’s user, it is a training tool rather than a remote control.


Is it just for puppies?

No, Clicker Training is for any animal of any age. Because Clicker Training is based on the science of Animal Learning Theory the same methods will work on every animal regardless of age, including us humans.



What should I use as rewards?

You can use anything that strongly motivates your dog or other pet (or family member). The easiest reward to start with is food, this is because most dogs love food and it's a primary reinforcer (your dog needs it to survive). It is also easy to give to your dog and makes training quick.

Another popular reward is play or toys. Find a toy you dog loves and play with them for a duration of time after you click. Make sure the toy keeps it's value by only letting your dog have it when they are playing with you. Think of it as a training aid, rather than a chew toy.

If you find your dog doesn't want to train or listen to you then your reward may not be motivating enough, so try something different or tastier. I recommend cooked liver, chicken, sausage or my tuna fish cake recipe.

Do I have to reward after every click?

Yes, even if you click at the wrong time. You have taught your dog to respond to the clicker so it’s unfair to not reward if you have clicked. Afterall you made the mistake, not them. It is very confusing and frustrating for the dog if you click but do not reward. It's like you working for a month and then receiving a pay check with nothing on it.

Won’t my dog get fat if I use treats to train him?

Only if you don't take it out of his daily meal ration. Cutting your treats into small pieces will also help avoid weight gain. Spayed/neutered dogs are well known for gaining weight quickly so it is very important that you do this. For puppies, don't worry about this too much as they use energy growing quickly, but do try to use small natural, healthy treats.



Do I have to click & treat forever?

No, the clicker is for teaching your dog something new or improving on something they already know. Once you can guarantee your dog will do a behaviour on cue you can use praise or other rewards instead of the clicker. 



Can my children use the clicker?

Yes, that's why Clicker Training is so brilliant. Children love to be involved and it's important that they learn how to train their family dog as well as being safe around them. Do make sure your child knows how to recognize doggy body language to avoid potential conflict or upsetting your dog.

Involving your children in training is a great way to teach them responsibility and build a strong bond between them and your dog. However, be careful that they don't use the clicker as a toy and click it repetitiously or out of training sessions.





The first step - Charging the Clicker

Before you can begin clicker training you have to teach your dog what the clicker means. This is called 'charging the clicker' or giving it meaning.

To do this all you have to do is click, then give your dog a treat. Yes, it's that simple!


Just go somewhere quiet with your dog, where there's minimal distractions and click then treat for 10-20 repetitions. Your dog doesn't have to do anything for the treats, just eat them! Do a few sessions per day for a day or two and your dog will soon perk his ears to the click. With dogs who have a basic level of training you can use the clicker to mark (then reward) know behaviours, before then using to teach new behaviours.



Clicker Mechanics

The timing of the click is all the information your dog needs when learning a new behaviour, but the way in which click matters too.

To avoid confusing your dog follow this order, GET THE BEHAVIOUR - CLICK ONCE - THEN REWARD.
If you click at the same time you reward your dog will not be learning as quickly as they could and they can learn to pay more attention to your feeding hand than the clicker.


I like to think of the clicker as a camera; you are “taking a picture” (clicking) the behaviour you want, then rewarding. Click too soon or too late and you will have missed the moment and your dog will not make the connection between desired behaviour and reward.

Using the Clicker

Start using the clicker for simple behaviours, such as sit or looking at you. Practice clicking the moment your dog's bum hits the floor or the moment his eyes meet yours. Your timing will probably be slow to begin with but keep practicing and try these games to improve your skills: CLICKER GAMES for humans.
Remember to reward your dog after each click, even if you click at the wrong time.

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