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Clicker Training for Dogs

Clicker training is a method of animal training that uses a sound-a click-to tell an animal when he does something right. The clicker is a tiny plastic box held in the palm of your hand, with a metal tongue that you push quickly to make the sound. Most people who've heard of the clicker know that it's a popular tool for dog trainers, but clickers can be used to train all kinds of animals, wild and domestic-from lions to elephants to household cats, birds and rats!

How Does the Clicker Work?

The clicker creates an efficient language between a human trainer and an animal trainee. First, a trainer teaches an animal that every time he hears the clicking sound, he gets a treat. Once the animal understands that clicks are always followed by treats, the click becomes as powerful a reward to the animal as money is to people. When this happens, the trainer can use the click to mark (identify for the animal) the instant the animal performs the right behavior. For example, if a trainer wants to teach a dog to sit, she'll click the instant his rump hits the floor and then deliver a tasty treat. With repetition, the dog learns that sitting earns rewards.

So the click takes on huge meaning. To the animal it means: “What I was doing the moment my trainer clicked, that's what she wants me to do!” The clicker in animal training is like the winning buzzer on a game show that tells a contestant she just won money! Through the clicker, the trainer communicates precisely with the dog, and that speeds up training.

Although the clicker is ideal because it makes a unique, consistent sound, you do need a spare hand to hold it. For that reason, some trainers prefer to keep both hands free and instead use a one-syllable word like “Yes!” or “Good!” to mark the desired behavior. In the steps below, you can substitute the word in place of the click to teach your pet what the sound means, just as you would with a clicker.

Giving the Clicker Meaning

It's easy to introduce the clicker to your pet. Spend 30 minutes or so teaching him that the sound of the click means “Treat!” (For the sake of simplicity, let's assume that you're going to clicker train a dog.)

  1. Sit and watch TV or read a book with your dog in the room. Have a container of treats within reach.
  2. Place one treat in your hand and the clicker in the other. (If your dog smells the treat and tries to get it by pawing, sniffing, mouthing or barking at you, just close your hand around the treat and wait until he gives up and leaves you alone.)
  3. Click once and immediately open your hand to give your dog the treat. Put another treat in your closed hand and resume watching TV or reading. Ignore your dog.
  4. Several minutes later, click again and offer another treat.
  5. Continue to repeat the click-and-treat combination at varying intervals, sometimes after one minute, sometimes after five minutes. Make sure you vary the time so that your dog doesn't know exactly when the next click is coming. Eventually, he'll start to turn toward you and look expectant when he hears the click-which means he understands that the sound of the clicker means a treat is coming his way.

Troubleshooting

If your pet runs away when he hears the click, you can make the sound softer by putting it in your pocket or wrapping a towel around your hand that's holding the clicker. You can also try using a different sound, like the click of a retractable pen or the word “Yes” or “Bingo.”