Have you used clickers to train your dog? If done correctly, it is an amazingly effective and very humane method. But if the trainer or owner does not understand what they are doing or they do not do it correctly, clicker training can confuse the dog and will not get the desired results.

What is clicker training? It uses the principle of operant conditioning. An association is formed between a behavior and a consequence. An easy example is when you ask your dog to “sit” and you give him a treat. The dog then learns that when he sits (behavior) he gets a treat (consequence). Clicker training uses a clicker to tell the dog that he did the right thing. The clicker is a small plastic box with a metal strip that makes a sharp, clicking sound when pushed and released.  The sound of a clicker is very distinctive. It grabs the dog’s attention. When you pair the sound of a clicker with a reward, your dog will begin to associate the sound with something pleasant. A clicker allows the trainer to mark with great precision the behavior for which the dog is being reinforced.  Paired with something the animal finds very reinforcing, the clicker becomes a powerful tool for shaping behavior.  

I know a lot of trainers who insist on only teaching obedience classes with clickers but I have found that many people cannot master the clicker. It’s tricky.  Here are a few pros and cons of clicker training:

Pros:

1. When used properly, a clicker tells the dog precisely that he did the right behavior. Therefore, timing is imperative when training with a clicker. The trainer must click at the exact instant that the dog performs the desired behavior. A click can be delivered much quicker than a treat or a “good dog.”

2. The sound of the clicker is distinctive and eliminates ambiguity for the dog. When the dog hears the sound of the click, he knows that he is being rewarded. Humans’ voices, on the other hand, can be loaded with uncertainty. Our tone or volume can be confusing to dogs.

3. Clicker training is an excellent way to train dogs who participate in sports such as agility. Because timing is so critical when training, a clicker is invaluable with shaping a dog’s behavior.

Cons:

1. One of the biggest problems with clicker training is the lack of understanding of why and how to use the clicker. I recently met a novice trainer who didn’t know that the clicker needed to be “charged,” that is, before any training can begin, the dog must learn an association of something good when he hears a click. After all, the sound of the click by itself is meaningless. “Charging” the clicker involves simply clicking and immediately giving the dog a high value treat. Click and treat, click and treat. Do this about 20-30 times. The dog is sure to learn that whenever he hears the click, it’s a good thing!

2. The other issue with lack of knowledge of clicker training is timing. If the click is not delivered at the exact instant that the dog performs the desired behavior, then you may be reinforcing a different behavior.

3. Some people think that the clicker is used to gain the dog’s attention. I’ve seen people clicking when dogs bark and clicking when dogs aren’t paying attention. This is not clicker training.

4. The use of clickers in group training classes can be confusing for dogs. If you have 6-10 people in a class and everyone is clicking, the dogs may not know which click is meant for him.

5. Many people find that they cannot handle a leash, treats and a clicker in their hands. It can be too much to juggle.

6. In my work with puppy mill dogs, some of them are afraid of the noise of the clicker. Instead of it being rewarding, it creates fear.

From the above list, it appears that there are more cons than pros for clicker training. Don’t let that dissuade you!  Try it. Once you learn how to do it properly, you may never want to train dogs any other way.

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