A dog sitting while an owner uses clicker training to train them.

What Is Clicker Training?

Ever since we started moving away from using punishment to train dogs, various new tools have been developed to teach our dogs new tricks. Many of these require professional assistance. However, clicker training has recently gained popularity among pet owners because almost anyone can learn how to train their pets using this method. So, what is clicker training?

Clicker training is a reward-based training system that uses positive reinforcement to encourage your dog to repeat desirable behaviors. The “clicker” is a bridging stimulus used to mark the exact moment your pup does what you want it to do. This helps your dog pinpoint exactly which behavior to repeat to get the reward next time.

The Psychology Of Clicker Training

Dogs are wonderfully smart, curious animals that love learning new tricks because it is mentally stimulating. It’s a great way to prevent boredom and keep their brains sharp and active. Clicker training also strengthens the bond between pets and their owners because of the shared time spent working towards a common goal. 

The principle behind positive reinforcement training is focusing on celebrating the behaviors that we do want, rather than punishing the ones we don’t. When a dog realizes that performing a certain behavior earns them a reward, they are more likely to repeat the behavior. 

What Does The Click Do?

The problem with the reward system is that there’s usually a small delay between your dog performing the behavior and then receiving the treat. A couple of seconds is enough for them to do something else that’s unrelated to what you’re trying to achieve. For example, your dog has just successfully lifted its paw for a handshake when you asked for it. But if it happens to randomly turn its head or twitch an ear in the time it takes for you to reach into the bag and pick up a treat, it’ll be harder for it to identify exactly which action earned it the reward.

That’s where the bridging stimulus comes in. The clicker is a small plastic device that produces a loud, sharp sound. It functions as a marker signal that is used to bridge the gap by pinpointing the exact moment your dog did something right. Once they realize the sound is usually followed by a treat, dogs will learn to try and replicate what they were doing the very second they heard it. 

An Interesting Note

Now here’s what changed the game for me: the “clicker” can be anything you want it to be. If you’re not ready to invest in a clicker, you can use everyday objects that make a similar sound. Retractable pens, Snapple lids, and computer mouses that have a reasonably loud click are all great substitutes for a clicker. You can also click with your tongue or use short marker words like “good,” “yes,” or even something random like  “lime,” or “pop.” The truth is, it doesn’t matter what sound you use as a bridging stimulus as long as it’s short, sharp, and replicable. Some trainers argue that using words or a tongue click isn’t as effective. This is because the tone of your voice may change slightly each time, making it harder to replicate. But with some practice, there’s no reason it wouldn’t work.

Why Is Clicker Training Better Than Traditional Methods? 

A dog sitting with its paw on an owner's hand, which is holding a clicker.
Very cute.

Some trainers use a mix of positive and negative reinforcement training to teach dogs new tricks. When done correctly, this method can help your dog to learn tricks faster because they are coached simultaneously on what to do and also what not to do. 

However, the punishment used in this type of training can quickly get out of hand. It can also make the learning experience unpleasant for the dog. We want our dogs to look forward to their sessions and not shy away from us when it’s time for training. A fearful dog is less cooperative and needs to be forced into performing tasks, whereas a dog that knows good performance will be rewarded will make a game of it and continue to try on its own accord until it gets it right. Creating this cheerful learning environment takes the pressure away and will help to further strengthen your bond with your dog.

The Process Of Clicker Training 

The first step in clicker training your pet is “loading the clicker.” Help them understand a click means a reward is coming. That just means repeatedly clicking and immediately treating your dog over and over until they look up at you in anticipation every time they hear a click.

Next, you’ll want to teach a relatively simple command such as “sit” or “paw.” If your dog has never learned these commands before, you may want to break them down into smaller steps.

For “sit,” the first step is to lure your dog into position. The easiest way to do this is to hold a treat under your dog’s nose and slowly move it straight upwards. As your dog lifts its head to look, its rear will naturally go downwards. Click at the exact moment its butt touches the ground to capture the behavior and then reward. 

If your dog jumps out of the sitting position before you reward it, repeat the command until you get it right, after which you can slowly work your way up to a longer sit. Later on, you can tie in a verbal cue or gesture by saying “sit” or raising your hand before your dog sits down. A dog doesn’t know what the word “sit” means. So, for a fun twist, you can select any word you like as a command. Imagine having your dog sit down every time you say “potato!”

Once your dog is comfortable with the behavior and the cue, you don’t need to click and reward them every single time. But remember to offer some treats or praise occasionally to keep your dog motivated to follow your commands. 

Behaviors To Introduce With Clicker Training

After your dog has mastered the basic behavioral commands, clicker training can be used to teach them new tricks. They can be as basic as “roll-over” or “play dead” to start with and then move on to more complex ones. If you follow the guidelines above and break down each behavior into its component steps, clicker training can be used to teach an animal pretty much anything. It can also be used to unlearn problem behaviors. These include begging at the dinner table or jumping on people that come in through the door. 

Just remember not to overload your dog with too many tricks in one go! To maximize your chances of success, trainers and behaviorists recommend keeping sessions short – only up to 10-15 minutes per day. If your dog just doesn’t get what you’re trying to teach it in that timeframe, it may be time to take a break and try again the next day.

What If It Doesn’t Work 

There are a few reasons why your dog may be having trouble with clicker training. 

It’s Afraid Of The Clicker

Some dogs are afraid of the sudden sharp sound a clicker makes. Spend more time conditioning them to create a positive association with the clicker by spending more time “loading the clicker.” If they still jump every time you click, using a retractable pen or a marker word instead may help.

Your Dog Doesn’t Associate The Marker With A Reward

If you move on too fast from the loading phase, your dog won’t understand that a click means a reward, invalidating your bridging stimulus. A reward must always follow immediately after a click. Even if you click accidentally, treat your dog right after to maintain the association. Never use the clicker to call for your dog’s attention. Take it slow initially, and try to be as consistent as possible with your marker. 

Additionally, keep the clicking device at your side or behind your back during training. You want your dog to associate their reward with the sound, not the device itself.

An Inconsistent Marker

If you’re using a tongue click or marker words instead of a clicker, it’s a good idea to practice by yourself first. Dogs can hear minor differences in pitch and tone that we may not pick up on, and saying “yes” in two different ways will only confuse your dog.

Also, don’t try to introduce your command words as a marker. The marker must remain consistent regardless of the behavior being trained. Cue words can be added in later once your dog has mastered the behavior.

They’re Not Food-Motivated

Some dogs are finicky eaters and just don’t think that working for food is worth their while. It can be slightly more challenging to train these dogs but if there’s a will, there’s always a way! Experiment to find high-value rewards for your dog. Some enjoy being petted or praised in exchange for performing the behaviors correctly. Others like a short play session with their favorite toy. 

Because you’re using a bridging stimulus, taking the time to pet your dog or throw a ball for them to fetch after they do well will not confuse them too much because the click would remind them of the moment they’d need to repeat to earn more rewards next time.

In Conclusion: There’s Something For Everyone 

Because the principle behind clicker training is so simple, it can be modified in many ways to suit all levels of training. This technique can be used to train any mammal to do most tasks. Even some birds and fish have been taught successfully using clicking paired with positive reinforcement. 

Behavioral training prevents boredom and improves pet-owner relationships while simultaneously preparing our dogs to perform cool tricks that’ll blow the socks off your friends at your next party. 

So, are you ready to try out clicker training? Let us know your thoughts and why in the comments below!

Dr. Umaya Gunaratne (DVM)
Dr. Umaya Gunaratne (DVM)
Umaya Gunaratne is a veterinarian plus dog and cat mum currently pursuing her PhD in small animal cardiology. Her field of interest is degenerative mitral valve disorders in small breed dogs, but her passion lies in bridging the gap between academia and the real world. She enjoys helping pet parents understand the research-backed science behind raising their fur kids. She spends her free time playing football, clicker-training her cat, Ria, and spending quality time with her many houseplants.