How to clicker train your dog
Clicker training is a popular method used to train dogs, but it’s important that it’s done correctly.
Clickers used in training can be bought online or in most pet shops, though you can use any object that makes a short, consistent noise (or a specific visual signal for deaf animals) and won’t be used outside of a training context. Some come with wrist straps so you can still hold your dog’s lead. Take a good look at the different options as you know what will best suit you.
What is clicker training?
Clicker training is a type of reward based training where a clicker is used to tell your dog that they have done the right thing. Clicker training works because your dog learns to associate one thing (the click) with another (the reward such as a treat). Eventually the clicker itself becomes a reward. A click is always followed by a reward at first to help your dog understand it’s a good thing. Over time you can reduce how often they get a separate reward as the click becomes a reward in itself.
The idea behind using a clicker instead of using a reward alone is so your dog knows exactly when they did the right thing. Some people prefer this over traditional training as it can help dogs learn faster. This is because when you reward a dog using traditional methods for something like sitting, they may have, for example, stood up or done something else by the time you reward them. This can be confusing as they might think they got the reward for that. In clicker training, the sound of the click is used as a ‘mark’ for good behaviour. It pinpoints the exact moment your dog has done the right thing so they don’t get confused.
The other advantage is if your dog prefers food rewards, clicker training helps to avoid obesity as less treats are needed once the clicker starts to be its own reward.
Top tips for clicker training
- In the initial stages of clicker training, a click must always be followed by a reward, even if you clicked accidentally – otherwise your dog may stop seeing it as a reward.
- Try not to point the clicker at your dog – it’s best to try and keep it by your side or behind your back.
- Don’t click to get your dog’s attention, or use the clicker noise for any purpose other than to tell your pet they’ve done the right thing or they’ll get confused and it’ll lose effectiveness.
- Only click once for each correct behaviour.
- Click at the exact moment your dog performs the behaviour you want them to.
- Keep training sessions short – around 10-15 minutes at most, though you can repeat them a few times a day.
How do I clicker train my dog?
It’s always best to work with an Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) accredited trainer to train your dog, as they will be able to give you a detailed plan on how best to train your individual dog with positive, proven methods.
If you decide clicker training is right for you and your dog, you can read our simple steps to find out how to start clicker training, but when in doubt it’s better to follow the plan your trainer has given you.
The Golden Rule: With clicker training, timing is everything
Make sure you time your clicks right. Try to click at the very moment when your dog does the thing you are asking for – if the click comes early or late your dog can easily get confused.
Step 1 – learning the click
You need your dog to learn that the click means a reward before you can train them with it. Go somewhere quiet with their favourite reward (if this is a food treat, remember to cut down their daily food allowance so they don’t start putting on weight!). Then, click the clicker and give them a reward straight away. You only need to click once and the reward needs to follow as soon as possible after the click. Try not to click and reward if they’re doing something you want to discourage. Repeat this for a few days, in sessions of around 2 minutes a few times a day. You want to get them to the point where they look at you and expect a reward as soon as you click.
Step 2 – basic behaviours
Once your dog knows the click means reward, you can start using it for basic training. Try starting with something simple, like teaching your dog to sit. Hold a treat or toy (depending on what motivates your pup) in your hand and slowly move it up and backwards over your dog’s head. They should automatically sit back. This is called “luring”. You need to click as soon as their bum hits the ground. This way, they’ll know that that’s the behaviour they’re being rewarded for. Remember to give them their reward as soon as possible after the click too.
Step 3 – add a command
Once you’re happy you can “lure” your dog to sit, you can add a command word. Tell your dog to ‘sit’ and use a reward like in step 2 to lure them to sit back. Once their bum hits the ground, make sure you click and reward. After a couple of repetitions, try without the lure and see if they’ve figured out the command. Never force your dog into a behaviour – you want them to see training as a happy experience.
Step 4 – practice makes perfect
Keep repeating this in short training sessions (10-15 minutes maximum, but young puppies might need even shorter sessions) – your dog will soon learn that the word ‘sit’ means that particular action and will do it automatically. Once they’re performing confidently, you can start to reduce the frequency that they get the treat after the click. The click should have become its own reward by now and only giving them the treat afterwards sometimes will actually make the association last even better.
Other simple behaviours to clicker train
You can use a clicker to teach other behaviours too. Stick to teaching just one or two new commands at a time, and don’t introduce new ones until your dog is confident with them. Otherwise they can easily get confused and find it difficult to learn.
Examples include the following:
- “Look” – asking your dog to look directly at you, which can be helpful if you need to distract them quickly or just need them to pay attention to a more complicated command.
- “Stay” – once your dog is confident sitting on command, try giving a verbal “stay” command and wait one second before clicking and rewarding. If they don’t stay for that time, get them back to a sit and try again. Once they’re happy waiting for a second, you can extend the time they have to wait for the click to two, then three, then five seconds. Keep building up until they are happy staying for a significant period. Then, you can add turning your back, working up to walking away with your dog maintaining the stay. Always build up gradually and don’t move on until your dog reliably does the previous step.
- “Shake” – gently tap the paw you want them to give and click (and reward) if they lift it. Once they’re reliably doing that, you can keep your hand out and only click once their paw touches your hand.
- “Lie down” – lure your pet into a lying position using a treat or toy. This can be combined with very gentle pressure on their back. Click as soon as they’re down. Build up to adding a command word and phasing out the lure like in the “sit” example.
- “Up” and “down” – you can use a lure to help your dog with these commands. Remember to click as soon as they do the thing you want.
- “Drop” – using a click as well as a lure reward to “trade-off” can make training this behaviour very quick, as your dog can be sure they are being rewarded for leaving the thing you are asking them to rather than grabbing a new thing. You need to be very precise with your timing here – make sure you click right when your dog releases the thing they’re holding, before they take the one they’re offered.
Using the clicker to teach your dog something more complicated
You can use clicker training to teach your dog some bigger things, too. This can be, for example, getting your dog to lie on their bed when they are standing across the room. With more complicated training like this, you’ll need to train in stages. This means breaking down what you want your dog to do into steps and mastering each step before moving on. Training in steps like this is called “shaping” a behaviour.
In getting your dog to go to lie in their bed on command, the first step might be clicking and rewarding when they look at their bed if you give them a certain command, like “bed”. Then you can progress to clicking only when they move towards it. Once they’ve figured that out only click when they are standing on it and eventually you will be able to give the command and they will go over and lie down in it.
When you’re training using these small steps, stop clicking for a step when you have moved on. You can use things like pointing or luring to help with some steps. This kind of training works best if your dog is very mentally engaged and curious. When shaping you might need to keep training sessions shorter because your dog can get easily frustrated if they can’t figure out the next step.
If you’re not too sure about how to break down a task for your dog, you both might benefit from training classes. You should be able to find a class where the trainer is happy for you to use your clicker, along with other positive training techniques. Take a look at our advice on finding the right trainer.