Why I Love My Clicker

Positive reinforcement training

I have a little plastic box that cost $1.50 (plus tax) that I am convinced operates by magic. 

Okay, it's not magic.  It's simple operant conditioning using a specific marker sound, if you want to get all scientific about it.  But I do believe that there is something very special about the use of a clicker when training dogs.

Lure/Reward Training

The lure/reward method of training was developed by Dr. Ian Dunbar in 1981 when he piloted SIRIUS Dog Training, the first classes specifically for puppies.  Most modern dog training classes based on positive reinforcement use this method because it's effective, easy to do, and fun for both dogs and owners.  There are three basic steps to this method:

  1. Lure the dog into the desired position by a treat held to his nose
  2. Mark the position
  3. Reward him by giving him the treat.

In this article I'm going to specifically talk about the marking step, but more detailed information on how to train your dog using the lure/reward method can be found at Dog-Friendly Training Part 1:  The Lure/Reward Method

The marker is very important as it tells the dog exactly what he did to earn the treat.  As an example, when you teach a dog to sit you would move the treat from his nose to just above and a little behind his head.  If the head goes back far enough as he tries to follow the treat, the butt will (usually) hit the ground.  But there are a lot of other behaviors going on besides the butt-to-floor action, especially if you're dealing with a wiggly puppy.  He may try to jump up to get the treat, dance around, or hit the floor and pop right back up.  If you reward him without letting him know exactly why, he has to figure out on his own which of those many movements was the one you wanted.  So in standard lure/reward training, you would say "Yes!" or "Good!" or some other short, quick word the moment the butt hits the ground.  The word you use doesn't matter as long as you continue to use the same one each time.  Your pup will catch on very quickly that it means, "Yes, you did exactly what I wanted you to do at this moment, and that's why you are going to get a treat."

Or instead of using a marker word, you could click that little magic box I mentioned.  But why would you choose to carry yet ANOTHER piece of equipment when your hands are already full of leash and treats?  A word is easy - you always have your mouth with you and you don't need another hand to carry it.  My students always give me a look like they're thinking, "You have GOT to be kidding me," when I first hand them a clicker.  And I used to give them the option of using a marker word or a clicker.  After graduating many classes where I heard the non-clicker users complain, "I wish we had used that!" as they saw the clicker-users' dogs picking up behaviors more quickly and eagerly, I no longer give them a choice.  I ask them to trust me and deal.

Clicker vs. Voice

Though our voices are more convenient for us to use, you have to take into consideration that we use them constantly.  Our dogs are always hearing us say blah, blah, blah blah and more blah.  Since they don't understand most of it, they more than likely tune us out to some extent.  But the clicker is a very distinctive sound that only means one thing.  A dog who is tuning out on his owner may not hear a marker word, but he's not going to miss the clicker sound.

Also the way we say our words is highly dependent on our mood and the way we feel.  You may be tired, or a little irritated, or there may be other factors that make one "yes" sound different from the next.  If you're looking for consistency, you can't beat the clicker sound.  It's going to be the same volume, the same tone, and carry the same (lack of) emotion each and every time. 

The most important benefit of the clicker is that it can catch a split-second behavior much more easily than the human voice.  Melissa C. Alexander, author of Click For Joy, says, "As an event marker, it is (in skilled hands) a scalpel, capable of shaping incredibly precise behaviors.  A verbal marker is, by comparison, a butter knife."  This may not be so important when teaching easy behaviors like sit and down, but is invaluable for more complex behaviors where you may want to mark a head movement or the lift of a paw.

Capturing and Shaping Behaviors

The clicker is not only a great marker for use in lure/reward training, but also presents the opportunity for another exciting positive reinforcement-based training method.  In capturing and shaping, the human does not "tell" the dog what to do by luring him, but instead waits for him to offer behaviors.  And that's where the fun really begins, as human and dog work together in a training game that both encourages a dog to think and requires the human/dog team to tune into each other in a way that greatly strengthens the bond of communication between them. 

In my classes I use capturing to teach a dog to lie down.  Each owner/dog team goes to a separate area of the classroom, away from the others, and the owners are instructed to sit quietly (preferably on the floor with the dog) and wait.  At first most of the dogs are straining to get near each other and frustrated that nothing fun seems to be happening.  Eventually most of them get bored enough to lie down.  CLICK and a treat is thrown.  They jump up to get the treat, look around again, wonder where THAT came from, and eventually lie down again.  CLICK and a treat is thrown.  Normally within 3-4 trials, the dog is starting to put 2+2 together.  Most of them will now focus on the owner, and more than likely slowly lower themselves into the down position, as if to ask, "Is this what you wanted me to do?"  When the click and treat come again, that's when you see the magic start to happen.  Once the dog catches onto the game, most of them are very eager to keep playing!

A lure-trained dog will sometimes have trouble at first since he is used to being "shown" what to do, and many will sit in front of their owners and simply stare.  Owners who are used to using lures will also have a lot of trouble keeping themselves from giving the dog hints by talking to them or moving the treat around.  But it's very important in this game to stay very still and quiet, and only communicate with the clicker.  If you continue to tell the dog what to do, he will continue to wait for direction instead of using his own creative mind to figure out the puzzle.  Give him the space to think.

Shaping is basically capturing successive approximations of a behavior.  For example, say you want to teach a dog to jump up on a platform.  Chances are he's not going to jump on it by himself and allow you to capture it, so you would want to capture any behavior that could be a first step.  He may sniff the platform.  Click and treat.  Repeat until he understands that putting his nose to the platform is earning him the treat and he is doing it on purpose.  Then you raise the criteria by not clicking until he does something slightly closer to the desired behavior.  Perhaps he will move his head further over the platform.  Or he may lift a paw to it.  Any of these behaviors are one small step closer to the behavior of jumping on the platform, so you would now click and treat this until he's offering it consistently.  Then you would raise the criteria again. 

Like any new skill, a beginner is not going to accomplish as much as quickly as one who has experience under his belt.  A dog new at shaping may take many days of several sessions a day to catch onto this new game.  But a dog who is experienced with it may take less than 10 seconds - and then be offering even more behaviors once he's on the platform ("You want me to lie down now?  How about bow?  Roll over?")

Can you do this with your voice?  Sure, people do.  But remember that scalpel/butter knife comparison. 

And the magic.  We'll get back to that.

No matter how many times I see the light in a dog's eyes when he catches onto this game, it still thrills me to see it each and every time.  And even more thrills and chills come as I watch the dogs and their owners tune into each other so intensely that the rest of the world fades away as they learn to read each others every move.  Okay, dogs do this pretty much anyway - tune into our body language.  But owners don't always learn to tune into their dogs as intimately as this shaping game requires. 

Want to teach a dog to go to the refrigerator, open it, get a beer, close the refrigerator door, and bring you the beer?  This is how you would do it, shaping it a small piece at a time.  You can teach a dog to do everything but open the beer for you, because that requires opposable thumbs.  (More information on capturing and shaping can be found at Dog-Friendly Training Part 2:  Clicker Training.)

Another great thing about shaping is that since it requires the dog to focus intently, it is fabulous for rainy-day or bed-rest days when your dog is bouncing off walls but unable to exercise.  It won't completely take the place of physical exercise, but you can certainly help tire a dog out by directing him to use his brain-power.  Or entertain him when he's bored.  And you can do it by sitting in a chair!

So why do I say a clicker is magic?  Because that's what the dogs tell me.  So often I see exuberant, unfocused dogs snap to attention with a light in their eyes as soon as they see a clicker in their owners' hands.  It's a spell, I say.  Something mystical that happens when that little piece of plastic is employed.  Because clicker-savvy dogs know that clickers = FUN!

And that's what training should be.