Clicker training has been used in animal behaviour management since the 40s/50s initially in bird but also dolphin control. It was only transferred to dog training principles later in about the 80s and has proved to be a very effective training tool regardless of the kind of dog you have.
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The whole clicker principle is based on positive reinforcement. It takes very little time to master clicker training and with a well operated clicker, you can teach your dog nearly anything (well not anything!). And that is actually the key to success – you must operate the clicker at exactly the right time when your dog has performed the required action. You then immediately follow up with an additional positive affirmation such as a food treat or just praise and affection.
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How Dog Clicker Training Works
The idea behind clicker training is that you’re teaching your dog to associate the sound of the clicker – a strong, sharp sound that they can hear from 20+ yards away – with a specific action that they perform – whether that is sitting, staying, walking to heel, etc. – based on the appropriate command that you have just issued. The goal of the training is to mark specific desirable behaviour with the sound of the clicker and then follow up with reward. In time the sound of the clicker become reward in itself.
Now there are two ways to start clicker training – one is to just start training for a particular action (let’s say sitting). Whenever the dog sits on command click and follow up with primary reinforcer (such as the food treat). The other way is to (what they call) “charge” the clicker. What this means is that you click, get your dog’s attention and then immediately give them a reward. You do this repeatedly until the dog associates the sound of the clicker with a reward. Then when you start the actual command training, whenever the correct action is performed, you click and the dog automatically associates that with a reward as well.
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Basically the clicker is used to identify correct behaviour during training. It is not actually used to maintain the particular behaviour once the command has been learned. So once your dog performs the correct action every time upon command, then you should discontinue the clicker for that command.
The reason a clicker is used to mark positive action is that it is unambiguous. You make sure that your dog will never hear that clicker for any reason other than to tell them they did a good job and that a treat is on the way. Using a special word or other sound can be used instead of a clicker but because that word might be given in different situations or might be make with slightly different tones, the relationship in your dog’s head between the sound and the reward association may not be quite as strong because of it.
How Clicker Dog Training is Performed
When you start training your dog to respond to a clicker, there are three very basic steps to go through:
1. First, you need to get the required behaviour. Convince your dog to do something that you want. It may be sitting, speaking, rolling over, or whatever other trick you’re trying to teach. Once you’ve got them to perform the desired behaviour, mark it with the clicker and follow up with a reward. It usually only takes two or three clickings before a dog learns to associate what particular action they did with getting a reward. They will start to repeat that behaviour whenever you click using the clicker. The dog clicker training works well because they will immediately respond, allowing you to reward them and it immediately associates action and reward in their minds.
2. Once your dog has performed the required action and received their reward, continue repeating it often to reinforce the behaviour. Stop using treats every time – praise and affection will work as suitable rewards just as well and can eventually replace the food treat.
3. Finally, start to transition to a particular command. So once the dog has learned the behaviour well, the next stage of clicker dog training is to transition to a spoken or even visual command that can be used anywhere, even when you don’t have a clicker. Whenever you are about to use the clicker, give the command and then click, followed by the reward. The dog will now quickly learn to associate all three elements: the command, the click and the required action.
Eventually, with good dog clicker training, a dog will respond to the verbal command or visual cue and the need for treats or praise will be gone. The dog simply knows that the performed action pleases you.
Clicker training is a great way to train your dog because you can issue a command, mark the appropriate behaviour and reinforce nearly any behaviour you want. So there is no limit to the particular tricks and training that you can use it on.
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