Saturday, July 31, 2010

On the benefits of clicker training

In my group classes I give people the option of using a clicker to train their dogs.  Personally, I have found this to be a useful and effective training tool for my own dogs.  Clickers can have many advantages over other methods of training:

1)  The clicker sounds the same every time -  every time we press the clicker, it sounds basically the same.  It is a clear and consistent signal to the dog that he/she did something correctly and will be rewarded for it.  Our human voices, however, can vary especially if we are happy, excited, nervous, frustrated, tired or impatient.

2)  Most animals have only positive associations with clickers - because of the nature of clicker training (i.e. click followed by reward), most animals have positive associations with clickers.  There are a few animals that are scared of clickers when initially introduced to them so it is always best to first muffle the sound of the sound of the clicker to make sure your dog is not is not scared of it.

3) Often helpful with rescues - I have found that clickers often work well with rescues.  Most rescues have no previous association with clickers so they find the experience unique and interesting.  For dogs that may have been exposed to earlier harsh training methods, the clicker does not evoke negative associations with previous training techniques. Again, with fearful dogs, introductions to the clicker should be done carefully. 

4)  Does not require physical prompting or manipulation of dogs - if done correctly, clicker training does not require physical prodding or manipulation of the animal.  

5)  Better focus and clearer communication - because of the unique sound and consistency in the signal, I find that clickers provide better focus.  Sometimes, dogs learn to tune out human voices and certain words (especially when words are repeated over and over again).  Clickers often work well with young puppies and their short attention spans.

6)  Better timing - because the clicker's sound is very precise and requires only a press of a button, we can mark or capture desired behaviors more accurately.  With certain behaviors (e.g. "watch me"), we need precise timing to mark the point when the dog correctly performs the task at hand (i.e. your dog makes eye contact which can be just a fleeting moment).

7)  Works across species- perhaps one of the most amazing aspects of clicker training (or the use of any similar marker) is the fact that it works for species other than dogs.  Think about the dolphin at a marine park (the trainer in this case uses a whistle).  Karen Pryor, who popularized the use of clickers with dogs, was able to train a hermit crab to ring a bell!    Below is a video of me clicker training my cat to perform some of the very same behaviors that I teach in my dog training classes.  Who said cats aren't smart!  This is the same cat that knows how to open food storage containers from my previous blog.

Are there times when I don't have a client use a clicker?  Absolutely.  For families with young children, clickers may be too tempting a toy for the children to play with thus confusing the dog.  In some cases, for the very fearful dog, even a soft clicker may be too much and some dogs are more comfortable with the human voice.  Finally, some people are not comfortable working with a clicker and trying to juggle the leash and treats.  In such cases, I substitute the word, "yes" to mark the desired behavior in place of the clicker.  Some of my clients have also made clucking sounds with their tongues instead of holding a clicker!

If you would like to learn more about clicker training here are a few of my favorite books:

Don't Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor - the book that promoted not only positive reinforcement dog training but the use of clicker training with dogs. 

Reaching the Animal Mind by Karen Pryor - explains the science behind clicker training with entertaining anecdotes and personal stories from the author, Karen Pryor.

Click to Calm by Emma Parsons - one of my favorite books for dealing with the reactive dogs.  Has easy to follow instructions and exercises to address reactivity/aggressive behavior.


  1. I love using the clicker! I was hesitant at first when trainer said to use it but it works so well. My italian greyhound gets so excited trying to figure out how to make it click :)

  2. When I clicker trained the cat in the video, you can hear one of my dogs in the background because she wanted to participate! Mine get really excited as well.

  3. Hi Dorna -- I've heard that clickers are effective for training parrots, and I bought a book a few years ago about clicker training in parrots, but I never followed through (I don't learn that well from books -- I like to see stuff demonstrated and have the opportunity to get feedback). Have you ever tried clicker training a parrot? I imagine some training would be great for my cockatoo. That being said, screaming and the occasional biting are really the behaviors I'd like to modify, and I don't imagine that these would be that amenable to clicker training.

    Hope you're doing well! Come and see us in Humboldt County sometime.....

  4. Hi Sharyn:

    Good to hear from you. I have not tried clicker training on a parrot. I no longer have any parrots so I don't have a guinea pic to try it on.

    The only thing that I would worry might happen with a parrot is that they might imitate the sound of the clicker, especially when you consider it is paired with a reward. I could imagine a parrot imitating a click to see if a reward would turn up. You could probably extinguish that behavior just by ignoring it.

    The clicker is just a marker or signal. You can also use your voice (like the word "yes") or even a mini-flashlight (flash light on then off) as a marker that the bird did something correctly.

    In dogs we use clickers/reward markers to teach dogs not to bite things or leave things alone or to mark the periods when the dog is quiet or becomes quiet when we ask them to so I would imagine the same could apply to a parrot.

    I would go to YouTube and see if there are parrot trainers using clickers. There are a lot of good educational videos on YouTube and if you are a visual learner then that is a good place to start.

    I definitely have to go up North one of these days!

    1. Update: Now that I have been working with a parrot for a while, I can say that my parrot has not tried to imitate the clicker and after watching many videos of others training their parrots, this does not seem to be an issue.

  5. Never could get the hang of the clicker. I lack the coordination:)

  6. Hi Nico:

    The clicker is just a marker. You can easily substitute your voice by using a distinctive word like, "yes." I avoid good boy/good girl because we tend to use this in situations other than training.

  7. The problem with using your voice is that your pet may pick up on subtle changes in your voice, tone, etc. Clicks are preferable because they all sound the same.

  8. Yes. As I pointed out in my original blog, the clicker is preferable because of its consistency and neutrality but sometimes people have physical limitations making the use of the clicker harder for them. In my classes, I do not force the clicker on people but many people gravitate to the clicker when they see how effective it is. The clicker is more effective but dogs are so flexible in their learning that they respond to the a verbal marker as well.

    Eventually the voice is used to put the behavior on cue. I have also had clients make a clicking sound with their tongues which works too.