How to Train Your Dog with a Clicker

8 of 8 in Series: The Essentials of Training Your Dog in Basic Commands

A clicker is a small hand-held device that makes a sharp cracking sound when you press it. Pair this sound with a food reward — always — and you have a dog-training power that would make Pavlov proud. Your puppy will alert to the sound, and when he connects this noise with a food reward, he’ll be prompted to repeat whatever action makes it snap.

A clicker is best used to reinforce good reactions the moment they happen: from sitting or lying calmly and coming when you call to peeing in the right spot. Your puppy sits: Click and treat. He potties in the right place: Click and treat. He returns with a toy in his mouth (or returns to you with anything): Click and treat.

To get the most out of the click-treat combination, click the very instant your puppy accomplishes a task (such as “Sit” or “Down”) — that moment may be gone in an instant. And limit your excitement and praise until after you dole out the treat.

Some behaviors you can easily associate with a clicker and a treat include

  • Name: Call out your puppy’s name. If he looks to you, click and treat. If not, ignore it and move on.

  • Sit: Each time you expect civility, encourage your puppy to “Sit.” Some preferred times of civility include before you give him a treat or toy, before you toss a stick, and when entering and exiting the home. Click and treat the instant his bottom hits the floor.

  • Housetraining: Click and treat the moment your puppy eliminates in the right spot.

  • Down: Click and treat the moment his elbows hit the floor, and say “Down” as he lowers herself into position.

  • Give or Drop: To help your puppy learn to spit out toys or other objects on cue, hold out a treat when he has something in his mouth. Say “Give” or “Share” and click and treat the instant he spits it out. If he debates the issue, use a more tantalizing tidbit.

  • Come: If you want your puppy to return to you reliably, click and treat whenever he’s nearby. With this click and treat combo, he won’t stray far.

    Rewarding a puppy for being nearby is different from trying to lure your puppy to come to you. Though many have tried to use the clicker to entice their puppy to come, the cooperation is short lived — especially when the temptation to stray is stronger than the temptation to snack.

  • Settled down and chewing a bone or toy: Ah, finally a moment’s peace: Your puppy is settled down and is quietly chewing a bone. Now is the time to lavish him with attention and praise.

If you don’t want to carry a clicker and treats 24/7, limit the use of the clicker to set times or organized lessons — one to four ten-minute sessions each day, for example. To forestall the danger of having your puppy listen only when you have a clicker, use words and hand signals at all times.

You use a clicker just temporarily to condition your pooch. After your puppy is well trained in the behaviors you reward with click-and-treat, you phase out the clicker gradually so that your puppy is unable to track its predictability. This system peaks his motivation and interest until each new direction gets encoded into his behavioral memory — click or no click!

Don’t stop using the clicker cold turkey. Instead, vary the click-and-treat reinforcement with praise. For instance, click and treat two responses, and then go two or three with praise only. Click and treat three in a row, and then praise the next one. Over a week’s time, tip the scale: Click and treat one, praise three. Within two weeks, your verbal appreciation will be incentive enough for your pup to continue the good behavior.

As you phase out the clicker, don’t forget to praise your puppy. Eventually, when all the lessons are understood, you’ll shelve the clicker, and the only thing motivating your puppy’s good behavior will be the sound of your voice.

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The Essentials of Training Your Dog in Basic Commands

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