Dog training

Mark and reward dog training using clickers

Dogs repeat behaviors that get them what they want. This is why positive reinforcement dog training is all about rewarding your dog for the behaviors you want to see. If you give your dog a treat for giving you a paw, for example, your dog will be more likely to give you a paw in the future.

But where are the clickers and markers? You may have heard of clicker training, also known as brand and reward training. Is it a useless gimmick? Rather the opposite. A clicker (or marker) is a tool that can make positive reinforcement training more effective. After being repeatedly paired with a treat or reward, a clicker becomes a conditioned reinforcer. Find out how clicker training can help you communicate better with your dog during training sessions.

What is clicker training?

Clicker training is the same as positive reinforcement training, with the added benefit of a clicker. A clicker is simply a small mechanical noisemaker. The techniques are based on the science of animal learning, which says rewarded behaviors are more likely to be repeated in the future. So rather than focusing on what your dog is doing wrong and taking good behavior for granted, clicker training reverses the script and focuses on what your dog is doing right. By telling your dog what to do, instead of what not to do, you can have an incredible effect on how your dog chooses to behave.

The value of the clicker is that it tells your dog exactly what behavior you are rewarding. By clicking at the right time, you can “mark” when your dog did what you wanted. So rather than having to guess what you liked, the click tells your dog exactly what he did right. For example, if you are training your dog to sit, you will click the moment your dog’s butt hits the ground.

What is the meaning of the click?

The clicker is just a way to mark a moment. There’s nothing magical about this specific noise, except that you probably never do it around your dog outside of training. Therefore, you can substitute anything as a marker as long as it is separate from other means of communication with your dog. For example, you might snap your fingers, whistle, or click your tongue. Many people use a marker word, like “Yes” or “Good”. For a hearing-impaired dog, you can use a light or a light tap on the shoulder.

Of course, the click or other marker itself is meaningless until it is associated with a reward. The click simply indicates that a reward is on the way. Although edible treats are the best incentive for most dogs, a reward is anything your dog enjoys. So if your pup would rather work for a game of tug of war than a piece of chicken, play it instead. The important part is timing and consistency. The click must mark the right moment and each click must be followed by a reward.

How does clicker training help?

In positive reinforcement training, a dog is rewarded after performing a desirable behavior. Without the use of a clicker or other marker, it might be obvious to the trainer what is being rewarded, but is it obvious to the dog? For example, when teaching a dog to lie down, how do you make it clear that you are rewarding the belly to the floor? You need to make sure the reward is given while the dog is down rather than the dog getting up to get it. Otherwise, the dog might think the reward is to get up or walk towards you. It’s easy with treats, but impossible if the reward is a fetch or pull round.

What about dogs that pop out of a down as soon as they hit the ground? You can’t get the reward fast enough. Or what about more challenging behaviors like those practiced remotely? How do you reward your dog for jumping through a hoop at the exact moment he passes through the hoop? This is where the power of the click or other marker comes in. The click marks when you are going to reward, then closes the gap in time until the reward arrives. Your dog knows exactly which action was correct.

But couldn’t you just use praise the same way? You could, but it’s not so clear. You communicate with your dog by praising him all the time. In fact, it’s a wonderful part of rewarding your dog. Also, there’s nothing in praise that’s specific to the workout situation, and you wouldn’t want it to be. Gushing over your dog is part of the joy of owning a dog. Using a clicker or other practice-specific marker avoids confusion about the upcoming reward.

Along with the benefit of clarity, clicker-trained dogs tend to love learning. They want to train and work hard to earn a click. From your dog’s perspective, mark and reward training makes teaching new behaviors a game. It also takes the strain off the trainer. Looking for clickable moments means you’re focusing on your dog’s good choices, rather than dwelling on mistakes. Like any form of positive reinforcement training, clicker training boosts your communication, strengthens your bond with your dog, and makes training fun.

How do you use clicker training?

To use a clicker or other marker, you must first teach the dog what the marker means. Sometimes called “charging the clicker”, you pair your chosen marker with a reward. So, click, then deal immediately. After about 10-20 repetitions, your dog will understand that the marker predicts an upcoming reward. You are now ready to put the clicker into practice.

You can use your marker with lure and reward training, where you use a reward to lure your dog into the behavior you are looking for. But it is also useful for shaping behaviors. Shaping consists of building a complex behavior in small steps. The clicker is also a great way to capture good behavior. So if you see your dog lying quietly on a mat instead of begging at the table, click and then reward that behavior. Or if your dog has all four paws on the floor when the doorbell rings, click that moment before your dog has a chance to jump on the guests. Finally, clicker training is a great way to teach tricks.

Eventually, when your dog has learned a new behavior, you won’t need the marker anymore. After all, it is simply a teaching tool. But whenever you want to attract, shape, or capture a behavior, the clicker or other marker will help you communicate clearly with your dog so that the behavior you want is the behavior you will get.