What is clicker training?

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Chances are if you’re visiting a zoo or aquarium, or if you see one of those perfectly performing animals on television shows or in the movies, that animal has been clicker-trained.

Clicker training was originally developed shortly after World War II by marine mammal trainers working for the US Navy, but now clicker-trained animals are all around us.

Here’s how it works: When the animal performs the desired behavior, the trainer or owner clicks or says a quick “yes!” as that behavior happens. Then it’s immediately followed by a reinforcement or reward –which is almost always food.

Since behavior reinforcement is what any dog training is about, it is necessary to be sure the food reward is something of great value to the dog. “For instance, if you offer the dog roast beef and the dog hates roast beef, then it’s not a good reward to reinforce behavior,” said Certified Professional Dog Trainer Viviane Arzoumanian, CPTD-KA.

Sometimes, an owner will ask if he or she can just give the dog a cookie to tell her she’s done a good job, says Arzoumanian, and, while you can, it just doesn’t have the same powerful effect as a clicker.

First, clickers speed the learning process by giving precisely timed messages and showing the dogs exactly what kinds of behaviors will be rewarded. The animal quickly learns what can make good things happen. “Timing is crucial,” said Arzoumanian. “For instance, if you’re teaching your dog to sit and you click too early, the dog’s bottom may not be on the ground. The dog will end up thinking “sit” means squatting or lowering the haunches, and it will take much longer for the dog to correctly learn the command.

Second, clicker training helps build a bond of trust and confidence.

Also, clicker can be particularly valuable when working with fearful and reactive dogs (and other animals). “It allows the handler to click and reward even the tiniest increments of improved behavior; a process known as shaping,” Arzoumanian said. Therefore, the dog can start to make the association of clicker and (food) reward.

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