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all articles by Lisa Lafferty unless otherwise noted.  Some previously published on K9Station (defunct) under author's previous name Lisa Giroux

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Clicker Basics

by Lisa Lafferty

Before we begin, let me preface this article with a little note about training methodologies.  Many clicker trainers belong to a type of Clicker Cult that means that they try to use Operant Conditioning in nearly every training situation.  They are so sold on the method that they refuse to see that using a clicker is only a tool in the toolbox of a good trainer.  Dogs can and do learn very efficiently and effectively without the use of operant conditioning methods, and are not damaged by certain corrective or impulsive techniques.

On the other side, many compulsion/correction trainers scoff at the effectiveness of clicker/operant conditioning use in a training program.  This is just as silly as someone thinking clicker is the only answer.  Clicker training is a VERY effective tool to use in certain situations and has a place in any good training program.

Balanced trainers will pull out the clicker for certain things and will use other methods for other things.  I use clicker to teach complicated, multi-faceted behaviors and I get rid of the clicker as soon as I've got the behavior.  Just as with any other tool, you want to graduate to not needing a crutch as soon as possible. 

The clicker is not intended as something you need to carry with you every day, or that renders other training methods unattractive to the dog.  A common misconception that comes with clicker training is that you will need to have one all the time to get results.  Pish posh.  Not true.  I had a lifetime of cool tricks with Vegas that I initially trained with the clicker, that he kept for the entire 17 years of his life without ever needing the clicker again.

It is only a tool.  When you need a hammer, you use a hammer.  When you need a drill, you use a drill.  You don't separate into Hammer Camp and Drill Camp and argue the pros and cons!  So use clicker if you need it.

An important note:  with animals that are shy or fearful, more progress can be made with a clicker for remedial socialization and training than anything else I have found.  Parrots in particular, who are fearful or aggressive, can often be turned into eager happy birds that are more than willing to be handled without biting, in only ONE session with the clicker.  Dogs that are extremely under-socialized can make huge progress in a very short time when clicker is used to mark tiny progressions.  Dogs that are shy gain confidence when they are clicker trained, because it shows them over and over that offering behaviors and trying hard work really really well.  This allows them to be freer in trying new things and their confidence increases quickly as they realize that they don't have to retreat every time they aren't sure about something.  Having the power to cause things to happen is a huge step in a shy dog learning to be comfortable in his environment.

Clicker also "opens a door" in the dog's mind.  He very quickly and easily learns that his behavior is recognized by you, and that you respond.  In other words, it is a way to teach a dog that there can be true and real communication between you and him--it is like no other method in that respect.  Dogs that know how to learn through shaping act differently, respond differently, have a different outlook on the world than dogs who have not had a human guide them through this type of training.  It is a very, very good step to take with your dog.  People who have used this method before with immediately understand what I am talking about--it truly does open some sort of door in the dog's mind.

A Dog That is Ready to Clicker Train

Before you can begin clicker training, your dog must be food motivated.  Most dogs already are, but some dogs that are free-fed "buffet style" (the food is left on the floor for the dog to finish when he pleases) will not be motivated enough to be able to be clicker trained.  Please see my article Feeding Routines for more information.

Click Means Treat: Charging Up the Clicker

This is the first thing you have to do before you can do anything at all with the clicker.  You must teach the dog that the click means something.  The click should mean to the dog, "a treat is forthcoming."  The following instructions should be followed until you see your dog "startling" when he hears the clicker sound.  This can be as few as 5 or as many as 100 repetitions...depends on the dog.

Begin the following exercises with a HUNGRY DOG.  Each session should be no longer than 2 minutes or so.  You can do as many sessions per day as you like as long as they are short.

  1. Click the clicker and give a treat.  At first, aim for very quick delivery of the treat.  After the first few repetitions, vary your time between click and treat. Remember that sessions should remain quite short!  Use different rooms of your house, different body postures, and (VERY IMPORTANT) don't ask the dog to do anything like "sit" or "gentle."  Just click and treat!

  2. You will notice the dog "startling" to the click.  This means he is beginning to understand what the clicker means.  DON'TS:  Do not under any circumstances use the click at this point to get the dog to come to you, or "just to see" his cute expression when he cocks his head and comes running.  Never click the clicker without giving a treat afterwards.  If necessary hide the clicker so that your spouse or children do not get tempted to "play" with the dog with it!  Do not allow curious onlookers to click the clicker "just for fun."

  3. Make sure to do a few short charge-up sessions in a couple of different environments that you've already tried, just to make sure the dog really gets it.

  4. After you see your dog "startling" to the click in all situations, you're ready to start training.

Offering Behaviors:  Working For the Click

Many websites and books will tell you that at this point, you should click your dog for doing already known behaviors.  It has been my experience that this does NOT teach the dog to offer behaviours and work for the click.  Instead, start with targeting (dog touches something with his nose), which is described below.

  1. Pick an area with hardly any distractions (people, other dogs, noises, toys, etc).  Make sure you have a room where you can shut the door or prevent the dog from wandering away from you.  Get a margarine lid or a cut-up piece of a mousepad (a target item), your clicker, your treats, and your dog.

  2. BE READY with your clicker and your treats.  Do not show the dog the target and PREVENT the dog from sniffing the item until you are totally ready.  Dogs are naturally curious and will quite naturally sniff/check out something dropped on the floor, but afterwards might find it boring to go back to it.  USE that first exposure to click the dog.

  3. Drop the target on the floor, as unobtrusively as possible, about 3-5 feet from where you are located (within almost touching distance of where you are standing or sitting).  Don't throw it like a Frisbee and do not point to it or tell the dog to "go see" it.  When the dog checks it out on his own, CLICK and TREAT.

  4. At this point your dog will begin to try to do things that have, in the past, resulted in him getting a treat.  He will hang around by you.  He will sit and look at you expectantly.  He might paw you, whine, bark in your face, lie down, roll over, play dead, or anything else that you may have taught him.  He might try to go for the treats in the bowl or pocket!  ALL OF THIS IS NORMAL.  Do not be tempted to "help" him by showing him the target etc. You must ignore everything he is doing.  Do not stare him in the eye as this might freeze him up.  Cross your arms, look away, sigh, cross your legs, look up at the ceiling, look at your watch, fiddle with your hair, etc.  This type of stuff is the ONLY clue you can give your dog that he's not getting anywhere with his behaviour!  Sooner or later, he will shrug his doggie shoulders and give up, and then will probably begin sniffing around the room and will probably accidentally hit that target!!  CLICK, use your voice GOOD BOY, and five or six big ole yummy treats!

  5. Your dog will now probably try the same old stuff he tried in #4.  Ignore.  Wait.  Now that he's gotten such a big reaction and such lovely treats he may try longer.  WAIT.  Remember not to stare right into his eyes.  Even if the dog lies down and appears to have "quit," WAIT.  Get up and sit back down again, see if that gets him up.  Just don't give him any commands.  Sooner or later he will hit that target again.

  6. Repeat until dog "gets it."  Most dogs need 4-6 clicks and then they start getting this funny look on their face and walk slowly over and look at you and look at the target.  After that, they usually start running back and forth to the target.   Once you see that they understand, stop the session with a big reward.  End on a good note, always!

  7. Practice having the dog target in short training sessions in different rooms and with the target in different spots.  Make the target further away from you, up on a chair, hold it in your hand, put it under the coffee table, etc.  Make sure you don't work for more than about 2-5 minutes as this is hard mental work for the dog.

Naming the Behavior

  1. After the dog is reliably doing the behavior in a few different situations, begin saying a command word just as the dog is about to touch the target.  Literally 1/2 a second before you would click the actual behavior, say a command word.  This means that you have to wait for the dog to really and truly commit to the behavior before saying anything.  Soon your dog will learn to associate the behavior with the command word.

  2. Click for every time the dog does the behavior at first.  Gradually, just use your voice to mark the behavior and then reward with a treat.  Slowly begin randomizing your rewards to make the behavior stay strong.

A Step Further!  Shaping 

So now you've taught your dog to touch a target, probably with his nose or paw.  Now you will begin learning how to shape behaviors. 

Think about dolphin shows.  How in the world did the dolphin trainers get the dolphins to do back-flips?  They couldn't just sit around and wait for back-flips like we sat around and waited for the dog to touch the target...they might get old and gray before a back-flip accidentally happened.  The answer is shaping.

 The dolphin trainer sits by the edge of the pool waiting for the dolphin to stick its nose out of the water.  Click (actually with dolphins it's a whistle) FISH.  The dolphin then does the same things our dog did above...tries everything...and finally sticks its nose out of the water again.  Whistle FISH.  Repeat repeat repeat until the dolphin is sticking its nose out of the water again and again and again for the whistle.  Now, the dolphin is expecting a certain result.   

Now, the trainer makes a decision to try to get an extinction burst.  An extinction burst is what happens when an expected result does not occur.  (Picture what happens when you put money into a vending machine and choose an item.  Expected result:  item falls down after you push the button.  Nothing falls.  Do you push the button again, pound the machine, rock the machine, stick your hand into the machine?  Those are all part of an "extinction burst."  They happen just before you decide to quit trying).  In this case, the dolphin EXPECTS to get a whistle when it sticks its nose out of the water.  That's what has happened over and over, multiple times.  So, the dolphin sticks its nose out of the water and the trainer....DOESN'T WHISTLE.  The dolphin then, out of frustration, tries again.  Nothing.  The dolphin tries again, but this time SURGES out of the water, and its whole head comes out instead of just its nose.  WHISTLE FISH.  The trainer now begins whistling/fishing only the "head out" attempts.  The trainer is now one step closer to that back flip!  She will continue to mark and reward the "head out" until it is really reliable, then will withhold the whistle again to try to get "body out."  And so on and so forth until the trainer has shaped the behaviour of "back-flip on command." 

A great way to practice shaping is to try the exercise called "101 Things to Do with a Box" by Karen Pryor, dog book author and former dolphin trainer.  Do this just to get into the practice of shaping, then have fun dreaming up all the neat stuff you can teach your dog! 

Some neat tricks I have seen: 

  • Check to see if you are a boy or a girl

  • Fetch a beer from the fridge

  • Say your prayers

  • Dead dog!

  • Spin right/spin left

  • Weave between owner's legs while owner walks

  • Get your tail

  • Pick up your toys

  • Identify toys by word name

  • Lie down with chin on floor (amazing for competitive obedience and the Down on Recall...there is nothing more dramatically amazing than a dog that does a fold-backwards-down and rests its chin on the floor!)

  • Where's your nose?

  • Limp

  • Bow

  • Lick your lips

  • Sneeze

  • Cross your legs

  • Do a karate kick (back leg!!!!)



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Lisa & Kerry Lafferty  /  ozarklisa@gmail.com  /    Mountain Home, Arkansas