FYI: we may earn a commission for qualified purchases made through the links in our articles (learn more).
Use positive reinforcement to teach your pet with a clicker
What makes dolphins jump through hoops, goldfish swim to a goal, rats sniff out landmines, cats come running when they’re called, and dogs sit on command? A tiny tool called a “clicker,” when combined with positive rewards and repetition, can become any pet owner’s most valuable asset. It has revolutionized animal training by making positive reinforcement, as opposed to negative correction, the primary teaching method.
The premise of the clicker is simple; it works as a secondary reinforcement, providing a consistent sound that instantaneously marks good behavior. The exact timing of the treat following the clicker does not matter, because the clicker has made the animal aware of his success. Without a clicker, our praise is likely to vary—our tone of voice or the reward we give might change, extending the time necessary for an animal to associate his action with a positive reward.
Clickers also ensure correct timing, which is hard to accomplish without a tool. It’s difficult to consistently reward a dog for sitting at the exact moment his haunches hit the ground, but a clicker allows for that precision. Animals soon associate the sound of the clicker with a job well done, and become more likely to repeat the action.
“Charge” the clicker
In order to help the animal associate the sound of the clicker with a positive reward, begin by simply clicking, then giving the animal a treat. Make a click, then give a treat, and repeat several times—“click, treat—click, treat.” Be sure to use high-stakes treats that the animal loves and can chew easily, such as tiny bits of cut-up chicken or cheese.
You don’t need to reward with a huge treat, just something the animal can swallow fast and would really enjoy. When you click and the animal begins looking for the treat, you’ll know she associates that sound with a reward. You are now ready to use the clicker to mark good behavior.
Click at the right moment
The most important characteristic of good clicker training is timing. You should click at the exact moment the dog performs the behavior and not a moment after or before. For example, if you want to teach an animal to respond to its name, click at the moment the animal turns to look at you after hearing its name.
For sitting, click at the moment the animal’s haunches touch the ground; for lying down, the moment the animal’s legs completely release to the floor. As long as you click at the right moment, it doesn’t matter if your actual delivery of the treat is a bit delayed; you have already marked the exact behavior with a positive reinforces that the animal recognizes.
Break commands into small steps
It is best if the animal realizes his good behavior on his own rather than having you force him into it, so as hard as it might seem, refrain from pushing or pulling the animal into the correct position. A traditional training method for teaching a puppy to sit involved pushing down on his hind end while saying “Sit.” With clicker training, you might begin while standing close to the animal and raising a hand (with a treat in it) just above his nose until he is forced to sit to get it.
Soon you can eliminate the treat from your hand and just transmit an action clue with your arm making an upward motion. Once the animal sits successfully with this nonverbal cue, begin to add the verbal command “Sit.” In this way, without ever touching the animal, you help the animal think for himself, and you might find him offering good behavior around the house because he has learned