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What Is Clicker Training?

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

If you’re just getting into dog training, you may have heard the term “clicker training” thrown about and may even have contemplated buying a clicker without actually knowing what it is or what it does. It’s actually super simple so we’re going to break it down below!

Dogs don’t speak English, we know this, but we have found effective ways to communicate with them, usually through short, sharp “cue words”. For example, while your dog won’t know what the word “Sit” means in language terms, they will learn to recognise the sound pattern of the word “Sit” and, if you train them to do it, they can pair the sound of the word “Sit” with the sitting action.

Fun Fact! Because dogs hear sounds instead of the meaning of the word, if you wanted to, you could use the word “Banana” over the action Sit. We taught Mars “Down” and then when it came to teaching “Bow” we decided the two words sounded too similar. We instead taught him Bow with the cue word “Duck” and this sparked us off on using animals as cue words! So far we have Duck (for Bow), Goose (for Sit Pretty), Otter (for Front) and Panda (for Roll Over). We try to keep all of his words short and distinctive so it’s easy for him to work out which we’re asking for.

So what does all of this have to do with a clicker?

The very first thing I do with every single dog I’m training is introduce something called a “reward marker”. A reward marker is a short, sharp, consistent sound that you use when your dog does something good, and then you follow through with a treat to reward the action. Important: The reward marker is NOT the reward.

Obviously if I ask Mars to Sit and he Sits, it’s very clear why he’s getting a reward. But what about when we’re out on a walk and I want to reward him for looking at me? If his dog brain is going: “Look a stick, ooh a field, glance at my human, turn to look at a car, look there’s a dog” and I get out a reward for him looking at me, in the few seconds it takes me to get the treat, he’s already done four other things and it may not be clear what the reward is for. This is where the clicker comes in. The clicker is going to be a way to pinpoint exactly what they’ve done to earn a reward. Now Mars’ brain will look like this: “Look a stick, ooh a field, glance at my human (CLICK) Ooh that was my good boy sound! I get a treat now! I should glance at my human more

The clicker helps you pinpoint the exact moment you want to reward and gives you a way to easily communicate with your dog during training, making it far easier to achieve your goals.

Now, the downside to a clicker? (Because there’s always a downside) The downside is that you need to make your reward marker sound the second your dog does the action you want to reward. And if you’re at home relaxing when they do a good thing and the clicker isn’t to hand or if you’re on a walk with a lead in one hand, treat pouch in another, it gets very difficult to keep on top of it. I don’t like clickers for exactly this reason, I have more than enough dog tools to keep around as it is and I need my hands as free as possible, but reward markers are a necessity. The solution? It’s actually (sort of) hidden in this post.

Remember how I said “A reward marker is a short, sharp, consistent sound”, I didn’t say that the consistent sound had to be that of a clicker. Personally I use a verbal marker. I just say the word “Yes!”. It’s a short, consistent sound and works in exactly the same way as a clicker. Using a verbal marker means that I always have my reward marker available, and my hands remain free. I can use it at basically any time and it’s unlikely to break like a clicker might.

Every single time Mars does something desirable I say “Yes!” and he immediately knows a treat is coming, and he begins to do the desirable thing much more because he knows exactly what it is that’s getting him the reward.

If you have properly trained and introduced your reward marker, your dog will get excited and expectantly come to you for a reward upon hearing it. This does NOT make it a recall tool. You should not be using your reward marker for recall or to get your dog excited or for anything other than marking desirable behaviour – or you’ll lose all the benefits it brings and wildly confuse your dog.

Whether you opt to use a clicker or a verbal marker, it’s definitely not something that is natural and easy to do at the beginning. It takes some focus from you to remember to employ your reward marker before giving the actual reward but before you know it, it’ll be second nature. I can now hold a conversation with another person and drop my marker word to the dog at the same time. Like everything with training, you get out what you put in!

Happy Training!

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