how to use clicker training to teach your dog

dog clicker training
Posted by Nicole Larocco-Skeehan, CPDT-KA on Sep 01 2017

Clicker training is an animal training method based on behavioral psychology, where you mark and reward a desirable behavior. In clicker training, your dog has the freedom to make decisions. You simply tell him which decisions are going to earn him treats!

How clicker training works

Clicker training works on the foundation of operant conditioning. Coined by BF Skinner in 1937, operant conditioning is a type of learning where an initially voluntary behavior can be strengthened or weakened based on its consequences.

Let’s put this into the context of dog training, say the behavior of sitting.

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If every time your dog sits, you mark that behavior and follow it up with something positive like a tasty treat, chances are your dog will repeat this behavior in an effort to get more treats!

On the other hand, if every time your dog sits, you mark the sit and punish the dog by squirting him with water, the dog is likely to stop sitting.

The key is to harness the good behaviors by marking and rewarding them, and extinguish the undesirable behaviors by ignoring them.

What is a mark?

A mark is anything you can pair with primary reinforcement to tell the dog they did something you like (or don’t like…but that’s not for this lesson!).

Primary reinforcement is anything that’s intrinsically reinforcing to your dog. Think of things like treats, rubber balls or a rousing game of tug! Secondary reinforcement is a sound or signal that indicates a treat is coming. It’s not naturally reinforcing to your dog, so you have to make it mean something by pairing it with a treat.

The mark should be a unique sound or visual signal that can be quickly and easily dispatched and stands out to the dog. A clicker is a great option for a mark because of its unique, crisp sound and portability.

How to clicker train your dog

First, you’ve got to condition the clicker. Grab your clicker and about 10 treats. Press and release the springy end of the clicker first, then follow quickly with a tasty treat. Repeat until you’re out of treats.

Now give it a few hours and put the clicker away. When you’re ready for another training session, take 10 more treats and repeat the first exercise. Continue clicking and treating until your dog starts to become excited when he hears that familiar clicking sound.

Once your dog flips his head around at breakneck speed when he hears the clicker, you’re ready to start marking behaviors!

Start with something easy that your dog already knows (let’s go back to sit!). Stand in front of your dog and ask him to sit. When his butt hits the ground (not before and not after), click and treat. Repeat this about five times.

Now let’s see if your dog gets the hang of it. Stand in front of him with your treats and clicker and just wait. Did he sit? If so, congratulations! You’ve just clicker trained a sit!

Do I have to click and treat forever?

The technical answer is no. You can use the clicker to teach something new, then fade it out and just use a prompt or a verbal mark like “yes.” But the geeky dog trainer answer is HECK YES!!! After all, why wouldn’t you continue teaching your dog new things all the time?

Check out for more in-depth information about clicker training and some really fun exercises to try!

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