Clicker Training for Dogs: A Step-by-Step Guide to Positive Reinforcement
Clicker training: a smart, fun way to positively reinforce your dog and teach them new tricks. Here's how you can get started in no time.
When’s the last time you fell for the old puppy eyes trick? As adorable as our furry friends can be, you do need an effective way to train them – while also keeping them happy. Enter clicker training for dogs: a smart, fun way to positively reinforce your buddy and teach them new tricks.1
In this article, we’re covering a step-by-step guide to get started and maximize its benefits – for puppy and parent both. Let’s get started.
Table of contents
- What’s clicker training for dogs all about?
- Benefits of clicker training for your dog
- Before getting started with training
- How to train your dog with a clicker: Step-by-Step
- Clicker training for advanced commands
- Tips for (p)awesome clicker training sessions with your dog
- A happier, better-trained dog – in just a few clicks
What’s clicker training for dogs all about?
Clicker training is all about positively reinforcing2 new behaviors in your dog – all with the use of a clicker. That’s a small handheld device that comes in both mechanical and plastic forms and makes a distinct “click” sound when you use it.
And here’s the simple concept behind clicker training for dogs – when they follow your command, you:
- Sound off your clicker.
- Wait just a half-second.
- Offer your dog a treat.
The sound of your clicker gives your dog a clear, consistent signal that communicates to them, “Good job, buddy! You got it right.” It’s a great, simple way to improve your relationship and communicate more effectively with your dog.
How is clicker training related to conditioning behaviors?
Clicker training is related to both operant and classical conditioning because of how your dog learns to respond to a stimulus (i.e. the clicker).
Classical conditioning is where you help your dog learn the connection between a stimulus (like the sound of a bell – or your clicker) and an outcome (like a reward – treats, hugs, or pats.) So with clicker training, they learn that the sound of a clicker is a good thing. And that they should behave a certain way so they hear the clicker sound and get rewarded right after.
With operant conditioning, your dog learns to behave a certain way by themselves – because they know you’ll be more likely to reward them as a result. It’s how your dog picks up that certain behaviors bring good consequences (i.e. treats or hugs) – and others might not. Like, for example, if your dog gives you a high five or plays dead because it made you laugh or praise them in the past.
Where does dog clicker training work in real life?
Clicker training isn’t just a way of teaching your dog to sit or stay. It’s a versatile, tried-and-trusted method that has a whole bunch of awesome real life applications. Here are some of them:
Some dogs might tend to jump, bark, bolt, or pull on their leashes. Clicker training is a great way to help them slowly, gradually unlearn these aggressive behaviors.3
Teaching your (old) dog new tricks
Jokes aside, clicker training is an effective training method for dogs of all ages: from puppies to older dogs.4 These include tricks like rolling over, playing dead, or even agility training.
Training service and therapy dogs
Clicker training helps these dogs learn how to best perform tasks to aid persons with disabilities5 or offer the emotional support they need.
Can I clicker train a puppy or an older dog?
Yes! Clicker training works for dogs of all ages – puppies, senior dogs, and every dog in between. Dogs of all ages and personalities respond well to positive reinforcement.
- Just remember to start slow and take it easy with basic commands at first, so that your puppy can follow along. It’s a great way to bond in a safe, trusting way with your little buddy and set them up for a lifetime of positive emotional development.
- For older dogs, experiment with what treats they’re best motivated with at first. If you’ve, say, adopted an older dog, they might have a bit more of an established personality. So, for example, they might respond better to hugs and head pats than treats.
Benefits of clicker training for your dog
Besides being a ton of fun, dog clicker training comes with a whole bunch of perks:
It helps deepen your bond
It’s never fun having to “punish” your dog or put them in time out when they’re up to mischief. Clicker training, on the other hand, is based on positive reinforcement. This means you’re rewarding your dog for showing “good” behaviors over only punishing them for “bad” ones. Over time, this helps strengthen your bond and deepens the sense of trust and understanding between you and your buddy. It can also help reduce negative behaviors through redirection.
It makes it easier for your dog to understand “good” behaviors
You might’ve been telling your dog “Good!” or “No!” in response to their behaviors. But the sound of your voice may not always be consistent – in many cases, your dog might not be able to tell the difference between you being happy or upset with them. On the other hand, a clicker has a consistent and distinct sound that your dog can easily recognize. Over time, they’ll begin to associate this sound with “good” behaviors – and adjust accordingly.
It helps your dog pick up new behaviors quicker
With the sound of a clicker, you can provide your dog immediate positive feedback. This makes it easy for your dog to connect the clicker sound with a treat – and, as a result, their behavior to the clicker sound.
Sound fun? Here are a couple of steps you could take before getting started.
Before getting started with training
Here are a couple of steps we’d recommend you take before getting started with clicker training with your dog.
Use a good clicker
Ideally your clicker is one that’s comfortable to hold and has a distinct clicking sound. You can easily find one at your local pet store or online. However, in place of a clicker, you can also whistle or make any other sound. (Just be sure to be consistent with it.) If your dog is hearing-impaired, you can tap them gently on the shoulder.
Be picky with your treats
Ideally small, tasty ones that your dog loves. You’ll need them to reward your dog for “good” behavior. We recommend picking a brand that’s chewable and don’t fill up your dog’s tummy too quickly during training. Do you only need edible treats? Nope, it depends entirely on what your dog considers a “reward.” So if that’s a splash in the pool or a game of tag over a snack, go for it. What’s more important is how consistently you reward your dog, not the treat itself.
Train in a quiet, familiar environment
This prevents your dog from feeling stressed, and also helps them focus without distractions and hear the clicker more easily. This could be your backyard, your garage, living room – anywhere your dog feels comfortable.
Plan ahead for distractions
Let’s admit: we all get distracted from time to time. And when you combine this with a high energy dog, you might see them bolting or running off at new sights, sounds, or smells every minute.
Clicker training is a great way to help your buddy overcome this habit. But the reason your dog might run off when distracted might stem from their instincts and prey drive. So it helps to work with their habits and natural tendencies – not against them.
If you’re still getting started with clicker training your dog and they tend to run off without warning, consider investing in a dedicated pet tracker. With the Tractive GPS, for example, you always know where your dog is with live updates every 2-3 seconds. So you can both clicker train your dog and stay on top of where they’ve run off to, stress-free.
Always know where your dog is
Follow every step in real-time with unlimited range. Get alerts if they wander too far. Keep them happy & healthy with Wellness Monitoring. And let others – like walkers or sitters – keep an eye on your dog too.
How to train your dog with a clicker: Step-by-Step
Getting your dog used to their clicker
Step one: getting your dog used to the clicker sound. Step two: training them to associate the sound of the clicker to a reward (aka, the treat – and tons of encouragement from you!) So here’s how you can get started:
- Start your training in the quiet, familiar environment you’ve picked.
- Sound your clicker once – and give your dog a treat right after.
- Repeat these steps a couple of times. Your dog will slowly learn to associate the sound of your clicker with a treat.
Using a clicker for basic commands
Now let’s start with teaching your dog some basic commands. Once they’ve learned that the sound of your clicker = treat, you can start with the:
- Your dog might already be sitting – but if not, just wait for them to do so. Or you could gently guide them into it (maybe by sitting down yourself or gently, insistently telling them “Sit”.)
- The moment they’re seated, sound your clicker and give them a treat.
- Repeat this process until your dog consistently sits the minute they hear the sound of the clicker.
- Start with your dog when they’re sitting.
- Holding your hand out in a “Stop” gesture, take a step back. Or slowly, clearly tell them “Stay.”
- Is your dog still seated? Click and treat.
- If not, guide them into sitting again and repeat the process until they stay.
We’d recommend gradually increasing the duration between clicks to encourage your dog to “stay” longer.
Lay down command
- Begin while your dog is sitting.
- Hold a treat close to their nose and slowly lower it until you can place it on the ground. Slowly, clearly, tell them “Lay down.”
- Your dog will follow the treat as you lower it – once it’s low enough that they have to lie down, sound your clicker and give them the treat.
Clicker training for advanced commands
Once your dog aces these basic commands, it’s time to move on to more advanced ones – like these:
Responding to “Come!”
- Get a friend or family member to hold your dog on a leash a short distance away.
- Crouch down, open your arms, and call your dog’s name followed by “Come!”
- Once your dog reaches you, click and reward.
- Gently tap your dog’s paw and tell them, “Paw” or “Shake”.
- Once they offer you their paw, click and reward.
- Toss one of your dog’s toys a short distance away and tell them, “Fetch!”
- When your dog retrieves their toy and brings it back, click and reward.
As with the basic commands, repeat these steps to positively reinforce your dog into associating the sound of the clicker with the behavior you’re training them to follow.
Tips for (p)awesome clicker training sessions with your dog
Work on one command at a time
It’s always smarter to master one command at a time over several – that can get pretty confusing for your dog! So don’t move on to the next command until your dog has mastered the one you’re working on together now.
Keep your sessions short and sweet
Aka, no more than 15 minutes. Dogs tend to have shorter attention spans, so adapt your training sessions accordingly. This will keep them interested and motivated and prevent them from feeling frustrated.
Practice makes perfect – both for you and your dog
Start simple: it’s important to be consistent with the clicker so that you don’t accidentally reward a “bad” behavior. So we’d recommend practicing initially with some simple behaviors your dog tends to do instinctively (like sniffing.) With time and practice, you’ll get better and more consistent with clicking right after your dog performs a “good” behavior.
Gradually get rid of the treats
As your dog graduates to a clicker training champion, you want to gradually reduce how frequently you reward them with treats. Instead, the sound of the clicker should eventually be reward enough.
Be careful where you use your clicker
Keep it well out of use outside of training. Using your clicker anywhere else might confuse your dog.
Patience is key
Some dogs might need a little more time to adapt to any kind of training – while others might just blaze right through. Clicker training works on dogs of all ages, from puppies to veterans. But every dog comes with a unique temperament. So be patient and adjust your training style to fit how your dog learns.
Avoid scolding or punishing your dog
Clicker training is built on positively reinforcing “good” behaviors – so communicating your expectations clearly to your dog. Remember that they might not always understand commands, so take it slow and build up practice gradually.
A happier, better-trained dog – in just a few clicks
Dogs respond pretty positively to clear, predictable rewards – and with a clicker at hand and a bit of consistency, you’re on your way to a happier, better-trained buddy in no time. Remember to start simple and get plenty of practice using your clicker at first, so that your dog can clearly understand what you’re expecting of them. So grab those treats, your clicker, and let’s get started!
Want to see clicker training in practice first? Here’s a video on how to train your dog using a clicker from the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home: