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An Introduction to Clicker Training a Dog

Author: Grisha Stewart, MA, CPDT-KA, KPACTP

Published: May 30, 2014

Updated: March 1, 2023

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introducing a puppy to clicker trainingGood dog trainers often use a small box called a clicker. The clicker makes a distinctive clicking sound when you press on it. This sound tells your dog “Yes, that is what I want you to do,” and it promises her a reward for a job well done. The clicker marks the exact moment she has done what you like.

If you don’t like using gadgets, your dog is afraid of the clicker or you can’t use a clicker for some other reason, you can use a marker word, like “YES” instead of the clicker.

You can also use a hand signal or the flash of a penlight if your dog is deaf. I will assume you are using a clicker below, but if you are using something else to mark the behavior, just use it in the places where I say to click.

The clicker is a stronger reinforcement than “YES,” but you almost always have your voice with you! I use the clicker to teach new behaviors and then transition to a verbal marker when the dog understands what behavior I’m asking for.

Clicker Training Tips:

  1. Clicker training is a great tool to help your dog learn.
  2. Target training is a great way to begin clicker training.
  3. Clicker training is almost limitless.

11 steps to using the clicker to shape desirable behaviors in your dog (also true for cats, birds, rats, or most other pets):

  1. Practice Your Timing:
    This step has nothing to do with the dog; it’s all about you. Your goal is to become proficient at clicking when you see something that you want your dog to repeat. At first, you’ll be practicing without the dog. Have a friend toss a ball straight up into the air (or do it yourself). Click when the ball reaches the highest point. Repeat until you are confidently clicking exactly when the ball reaches the highest point. When you can do that, you’ll have great clicker timing.

  2. Find Great Rewards:
    Find some really delicious treats. There are lots of good training treats out there. A piece of freshly cooked turkey or chicken also works well. One dog I know goes crazy over bits of an orange, and another loves bananas. In general, you want to use something small and soft, so your dog gets a nibble of a treat, swallows it, and is ready to work for more. (Important note: Never use grapes, raisins, or currants — as these can cause kidney failure in dogs.) Toys make excellent treats, especially for dogs who aren’t food motivated, but toys take time to deliver, so treats are often better at this stage – you may just have to find a really high-value treat to pique your dog’s interest.

  3. Charge the Clicker:
    If your dog does not appear to be startled by or afraid of the clicker, you can skip this step and move on to the next stage. If your dog is shy or does not know you well, it helps to associate the click sound with a treat. This is called “charging the clicker”. If you’re using a different marker instead of a clicker, such as “yes” or a hand signal, charge that too. Initially, the click has no meaning to the dog. In this step, you’re not looking for a particular behavior, you’re just teaching your dog to associate clicking with getting a treat. Just be careful not to click while your dog is doing something you dislike, such as jumping, barking, or whining.

    The actual process is simple. If your dog is startled by the noise of the clicker, muffle the clicker with your hand or a sock so that it is not too loud. Then, click, treat, pause, and then repeat. Alternate short and long pauses. This will help your dog learn that the click is the signal for a treat. Practice clicking and treating between 10 and 15 times. Take a break and then repeat the process after a few hours. Once your dog starts to look for treats after she’s heard the click, you’re ready to move to the next step. Now you’ll teach your dog how to make you click.

  4. Start Teaching a Behavior:
    Now you are ready to teach a behavior using a process called “shaping.” When you shape, you are teaching your dog that she can MAKE you click and give her a treat. In the process of teaching this first behavior, you are also teaching your dog how to learn from you. Read through all of the steps below before continuing. If your dog is ahead of the game, you can move faster through the steps, but only if you know where you’re going!

    One of the best behaviors to teach at this stage is targeting a wooden dowel with a piece of tape on one end (the “target”). The reason? Dogs tend to offer the behaviors they already know when you are trying to teach the next behavior. The first behavior learned using the clicker is one of the strongest. Since this behavior will use a prop, if it’s not there, she can’t offer the behavior. So she’ll have to give you something else. Alternatively, you can teach her to look at you as her first clicker-trained behavior. Once you have a dog who knows how to target a wooden dowel, you can use that to teach her to turn on light switches with her nose, stop in the contact zones for agility, close doors, or just be cute pushing a ball around! Please note, you won’t put a cue on the targeting behavior until much later (see below). Right now, you want your dog to figure out what to do to make you click. So zip your lips, except to give praise.

    1. Start with the target behind your back or otherwise out of sight. Hold the target and the clicker in the same hand. Then hold the target out to your dog. If she makes any move toward it, like sniffing, turning her head, flicking her ears, (really anything at all) click and treat.

    2. Put the target behind your back while your dog is eating her treat. Then repeat. Do that about 10 times or so. Give a big reward for the last time. Then stop and put the target away while your dog is eating the treat. Go do something else. You don’t want to tire her out. Come back to it later. That can be a few hours later or even the next day.

  5. Reward Yourself:
    You’re juggling a lot here. Reward yourself for doing such a good job and being so patient with your dog. Go take a nap, call a friend, or do something else that makes you happy. Your dog isn’t the only one who deserves a treat!

  6. Raise Your Criteria:
    When you come back to the training you can start to make it harder to get food. When your dog starts to offer the correct behavior without hesitation, ask for a slightly more difficult behavior. For example, if your dog is successfully touching the target with her paw, try waiting for her to touch the target with her muzzle before you click and treat. Click every time that she touches it with her muzzle. Stop before she gets tired. If she looks truly eager to continue, move on to the next step.

  7. Raise Your Criteria Again:
    Now, once your dog is warmed up to touching the target, she has to touch the target even when it’s moved to different positions. Any time she touches the target in these new positions, give her a reward. If she’s tired or looks like she’ll tire soon, stop. Otherwise, go on. Keep in mind we still aren’t calling this behavior anything. The target itself is the cue.

  8. Raise Your Criteria Even More (and More):
    In your next session, once your dog is warmed up, your dog has to touch the target close to the end. The time after that, she has to touch the end. Then wait for your dog to touch and hold her nose on the target. Reward only the long holds - half a second at first, then one second, etc. You want to make it harder each time, but not impossible. Set her up for success. If she tries more than twice with no reward, then you have probably made it too hard. Find a step in between what she used to get rewarded for and what you want her to do.

  9. Put the Behavior on Cue:
    After your dog is touching the end quickly and accurately, you can put it on cue. Have the target behind your back, say “touch” and then pull out the target. Your dog won’t even notice the word, at first, but then she’ll make the connection after a while. Every time you ask her to “touch” and she does, click and treat. Occasionally present the target without saying “touch” and then if she touches it, take the target away. If she doesn’t touch it after a short period of time (start with 1/2 second), present the target and say the cue. Click and treat for the touch only when she does so after the cue. Continue at this stage until she touches when you say the cue and waits for you to tell her if you just present the target. Exception: if you want her to touch without the cue, so the target itself always cues touching, skip the second half of this step.

  10. Start Rewarding Only Sometimes:
    This step is extremely important because it makes her less likely to give up if you ever don’t give her a treat. Think about a slot machine versus a soda machine. If you put your money in for a soda and get nothing back, you probably won’t put any more money in. You expect a soda every time. But with a slot machine, you don’t expect a reward and yet many people are hooked. Dogs, like many people, like to gamble, so use that to your advantage!

    Start with step nine. Practice three of four touch requests where you reward your dog every time she touches the target on cue. If she is consistently touching the target with her nose, begin rewarding intermittently. Sometimes when your dog successfully touches the target, just praise her. Don’t give her a food reward or click. Then put the target back behind your back. Reward approximately 50 percent of your dog’s successes, but don’t stick to a predictable pattern of rewarding every other success. If you did stick to every other success, your dog would notice the pattern. Since you aren’t rewarding every time, you can make sure to choose the good responses.

    After a while, you can switch to saying “yes” and treat instead of click and treat to start weaning off the clicker.

    As always, end with a good response that earns a big reward. I love to give a handful of treats on the floor for a final big payoff. Put away your clicker, treats, and target while your dog is munching.

  11. Take It on the Road:
    It’s important for your dog to know how to perform in a variety of conditions. It’s good to practice training in new locations or with more distractions. However, when you change the conditions, performing becomes more difficult for your dog. When you go to a new location or add more distractions, lower your criteria. The first time that you train in the living room instead of the bedroom, click for responses that aren’t quite as perfect as the ones for which you used to reward your dog. Work up to the former level of perfection.

    Practice in different rooms of the house and different distractions. If your dog knows other cues, mix those in so that you are asking for a combination of behaviors before treating. For example, you might ask your dog to sit, lay down, and then touch the target before you click and treat.

    Once your dog is able to perform combinations successfully in every room of your home, head outside. Practice in the yard, on the sidewalk, down the street, or on the way to the dog park! Each time the environment changes, your dog might act like she has no idea what “touch” means. That’s absolutely normal and she isn’t being stubborn or willful. Your dog honestly has no idea what you mean in this new context. Just go through the shaping process again, as a refresher. She’ll catch on quickly enough that you’ll feel like you’re on fast forward. As always, remember to keep sessions short and upbeat. Always end on a good note.

The same basic steps outlined above for shaping can be used to teach your dog to target your hand (useful for walks), or almost anything you want. Teachable behaviors include ringing a bell to go outside, spinning in a circle, fetching, barking on cue, and almost anything else a dog can physically do. Get creative!

The clicker can also be used in conjunction with luring and capturing. With luring, you use the target or a piece of food to get the dog to offer the behavior or some approximation of it. Stop using the lure as soon as possible and use shaping to finish up the behavior. With capturing, you click and treat whenever the dog offers a complete behavior. For example, to teach a dog to stretch, find out the times and situations when she will stretch. Then, just before you know she will stretch, say “stretch” and when she is stretching, click and treat. Soon she will be offering the stretch more and more. Click and treat each time, attempting to say the cue before, or at least during the stretch. Clicking your dog for making eye contact with you is another great use of capturing.

Have fun!

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About the author

Profile picture for Grisha Stewart

Grisha Stewart, MA, CPDT-KA, KPACTP

Grisha Stewart is an author, international speaker, and dog trainer who specializes in dog reactivity. She owns Ahimsa Dog Training in Seattle, which has earned many awards, including Best of Western Washington. Grisha is the founder of the Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) program, a rewards-based and force-free way of effectively rehabilitating reactive dogs and empowering them to live with confidence and joy in society. You can learn more about BAT and see Grisha’s videos and books on her Empowered Animals website.