Clicker training is one of the most comprehensive and effective methods of training a dog by means of conditioning them to recognise the sound of a clicker as a reward, which provides positive feedback when the dog does something right and helps to guide them towards desirable responses and behaviours.
However, in order to succeed when clicker training your dog, it is important to first do lots of research into how to clicker train effectively, and how to avoid mistakes that can sabotage your endeavours. Many dog owners that have attempted clicker training but who have ultimately decided that it is ineffective for their own dogs are inadvertently sending mixed messages to their dogs and so, confusing them and limiting their chances of success.
In this article, we will pre-empt five problems that can arise when clicker-training a dog, and share some tips and advice on how to recognise and avoid them. Read on to learn more.
Clicker training works by means of the dog handler using a small clicker tool to create the signature “click” sound when a dog follows a command successfully, which comes accompanied by a treat. A treat is of course a desirable reward to the dog, and over time, the sound of the click activated at the same time as the treat helps to build up associations in the dog’s mind that the click in itself is the reward, by means of triggering the neural pathways that provide positive feedback in the dog’s memory.e
This means that over time, the treat can be withheld and the dog will still interpret the click as positive feedback and a desirable response. The click itself then indicates to the dog that you are pleased and that the dog has complied with the command, providing a reward without food in the mind of the dog, and also, letting them know that the absence of the click means that they have not done as asked, or fully followed the command.
While this is all simple in principle, problems can and sometimes do arise along the way, which can cause your dog to misunderstand the meaning of the click, fail to see it as its own reward, or learn irreverence towards the click because it holds no meaning for them. Next, we will cover five common problems and mistakes that can arise when clicker training.
Integrating food rewards is an integral part of clicker training when introducing your dog to the concept and teaching new skills, in order to begin building up the associations in your dog’s mind with the click and the reward. However, clicker training should also ultimately stand up on its own too, and not be reliant on continual food rewards to achieve success.
Knowing when to begin phasing out the food reward can be a challenge-when you first start using the clicker, every click should come with a reward, and the same is true when you use the clicker in future to teach new skills.
Failing to phase out the treat at all makes the use of the clicker largely redundant, which is perhaps the most common problem trainers face.
When a dog will exhibit the desired response to your command reliably, you can begin to phase out the treat and just use the click-but do not cut off the treat supply all in one go! Achieving compliance with a command every time and keeping your dog trying to please you relies upon the dog knowing that they will get a reward of some form-and keeping your dog guessing by giving a treat on occasion whilst just using the click at other times is important.
When your dog follows your command reliably, start withholding a treat every third time, then two out of three times, and eventually, only give a treat occasionally. Remember to deliver the click every time!
On the other side of the coin, phasing out the treats too soon or not using them at all will also lead to failure, as once again, the clicker itself is redundant and meaningless to your dog. Until your dog’s neural pathways have built up their associations with the click as a reward due to reinforcement with a treat, the sound of the click itself will hold no value to your dog-so make sure that they are following your command reliably every time for a while before you start slowly phasing out the treat.
When your dog gets something right for the first time or if your dog complies with a command when you were not expecting it, it can be very easy to get carried away with your success and forget to click! In order to be effective, the click must be delivered immediately when your dog complies-not a few seconds later and not as an afterthought!
The click should accompany the treat and not follow it, and you should begin to condition yourself too, to click automatically when you praise your dog, so that you do not forget to do so in the heat of the moment!
Forgetting to click sometimes will mean that your dog’s understanding of how they have done will be patchy and take longer to establish, but clicking at the wrong time or clicking too much can be just as bad! Your dog will soon come to associate the click with being a reward or coming accompanied with a reward, so make sure that your dog has completed the command sequence before clicking.
For instance, if you activate the click while your dog is still in process-such as if you say “sit” and click while your dog moves to do so rather than when they have achieved the sit-your dog will not really understand what you are clicking for, and/or may see the click as a signal of success and to stop-such as by getting back up before they even properly sat down.
Intelligent dogs that are fast learners such as the Border collie will soon begin to pre-empt your behaviour, and will think that an early click means they have succeeded at the stage they have reached by the time you click.
Finally, when you are establishing the basis of clicker training with your dog and when teaching them new commands with the clicker, you will of course be using the clicker a lot-but it is important to integrate the clicker into your dog’s day to day management and use of commands, otherwise the skills and responses they learn in your training sessions will not translate into their everyday lives.
Keep the clicker to hand, in your pocket or on a lanyard, and use it regularly throughout your walks and interactions with your dog, in order to keep the concept of click and reward relevant to them.