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How to Get Started with Clicker Training

Clicker training is a great way to teach your dog—it can be used to help him learn the basics, like sit and down, or for complex, multi-step tricks.

In the video below you can see just a few fun behaviors it’s possible to teach your dog with clicker training (demonstrating are trainer Debbie Hanley and her dogs, Bleu and NewMoon).

But what is clicker training and how does it work?

What is Clicker Training?

Clicker training, at its most basic, is the process of marking desirable behavior and rewarding it. It uses a small device that, when pressed, makes a clicking noise.


Clicker training can be used to teach everything from basic behaviors like sit to complex tricks.

The dog is taught whatever he is doing when that noise is made will earn him rewards; this is based on the idea in behavioral psychology that animals are more likely to display more of behaviors that are rewarded.

Basically, if every time your dog sat a treat appeared, he’d probably spend an awful lot of time sitting.

Clicker training is based on two principles of behavioral psychology: classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical Conditioning

Most people know the story of Pavlov’s dogs—Pavlov would ring a bell before feeding his dogs and discovered before long that they would begin to salivate as soon as the bell rang. This was classical conditioning.

Your dog may already be “classically conditioned” to some things. When the doorbell rings, does he bark? When you pick up your keys or his leash, does he head for the door? This is classical conditioning.

Operant Conditioning

By contrast, operant conditioning is when your dog associates a behavior with a consequence. Consequences can be good or bad.

For example, when he sits, he gets a treat. When he chases the cat, she swats him on his nose.

It’s also the idea that things that are rewarded are more likely to be repeated; things that are punished or that fail to result in a reward, are less likely to be repeated.

Think about it: if your boss didn’t pay you, would you go to work? Probably not.

Clicker training uses both Classical Conditioning AND Operant Conditioning.

The First 3 Steps in Clicker Training

YUM! Clicks mean good things!

Wow — clicks mean good things!

Before using a clicker to teach a dog new things, the dog must know what that little clicking noise means.

Step 1: Clicks = Good Things

So before using a click in training, we must teach our dog clicks = good things.

To do this: Doing this is simple. Begin with 20 small treats in your hand or pocket, and in a low distraction environment. Wait until your dog is paying attention to you (he doesn’t necessarily need to be looking at you, but you don’t want him actively focusing on something else, like a toy or treat). Click the clicker. Feed the dog a treat. Repeat 5-10 times.

You’re using classical conditioning to teach your dog that a click = a reward.

Most dogs are naturally curious what that weird little clicking noise is, and will look at you or come closer to investigate, making it easier to treat them.

Step 2: I Can Make Clicks Happen!

Once your dog understands that clicks mean good things, he needs to be taught that HE can make clicks happen. This is operant conditioning.

There are many ways to teach your dog this—my personal favorite is with the “Look At Me!” game, because it also teaches your dog to pay attention to you.

To do this: Begin with a handful of treats nearby and your clicker in a low distraction environment. When your dog makes eye contact, click and then toss a treat on the floor nearby (this is so that he breaks eye contact and has a chance to look at you again and therefore earn another treat).

If your dog doesn’t naturally make eye contact, feel free to make a kissy noise or say his name. Then when he looks at you, just like before, click and toss a treat nearby. 

Before long your dog will start to “get” the game. Looking at you makes that click happen, which means food is coming!

Step 3: There Are MANY Ways to Make Clicks Happen

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Your dog needs to learn that there are many ways to make clicks happen!

Once he’s gotten the “Look At Me” game, you need to teach him that’s not the only way to make clicks happen. If he already knows sit or down, you can use these commands—followed by a click when he complies—to help him understand.

If he doesn’t, that’s okay too; in this case, I like to teach a dog to touch his nose to my hand.

That’s because most dogs offer that behavior naturally—when you extend your hand to your dog, there’s a good chance he’s going to extend his nose to sniff. When he does, click and reward him with a treat.

Once he’s doing this consistently (at least 7 or 8 times in a row) you can “name” the behavior by saying “touch” before extending your hand. He’ll learn that when you say “touch” he’ll have an opportunity to earn a click (and a treat) by touching his nose to your hand.

And you’ll have officially taught him his first clicker-trained behavior!

Want to learn more? Are you in the Cary, NC area? Sign up for one of our manners classes today!

One Response to “How to Get Started with Clicker Training”

  1. CitlaliApril 9, 2014 at 7:22 pm #

    I trained 3 of my beagles with snapping my fingers instead of using a clicker, and associated (Stay, Sit, Lay, Come, Good, and Jump) commands with American Sign Language. I can sign a command to them too without using words and they’ll still follow the command. It’s best to stick with one word ASL commands, as it gets too complicated for them. My dogs have learned over 30 ASL signs.