Clicker training is a technique that uses rewards rather than punishment to teach a dog. It was originally developed for use with dolphins in zoos, gaining the attention of dog trainers during the 1990s.
The concept is simple – to create a positive association between an action and an outcome using rewards. A dog learns what will earn them a treat, so will repeat the desired behaviour.
Pavlov’s dogs worked to the same principle. They learnt to pair the sound of a bell with the arrival of food, so that by just hearing the ring they would begin to salivate in anticipation.
Positive, reward-based training has replaced the outdated and unkind punishment-based methods of the past, such as the use of choke chains and rattle cans.
A study into the effectiveness of training methods published in December 2020 found that the welfare of companion dogs is at risk where punishment (aversive) methods are used. Shouting or smacking a dog will make them fearful and untrusting, which can lead to behaviour problems later in life.
Clicker training is easy, kind and above all fun for dog and owner – so how do you get started?
Firstly, you’ll need a clicker, a small handheld device that emits a click when you press it. Clickers are available to buy online or in most pet shops, but you can use anything that makes a distinctive noise. The crucial thing is that the sound is always the same, so that your dog will learn to recognise it.
The other thing you need for training success is a reward – and it needs to be a good one! What’s most likely to make your pet go weak at the knees? Pieces of cooked chicken? Sausage? Cheese? You need to find the ultimate reward in their eyes and reserve this for training sessions.
Only tiny morsels are needed each time, but you might need to decrease the amount of food you give your dog at meal times if they are likely to put on weight.
Once you’ve got your clicker, your rewards and an eager pupil, you’re ready to go!
This is also known as ‘charging’ or ‘loading’ the clicker and basically means showing your dog what happens when you click it.
Make sure you and your dog are in a quiet room, away from any distractions. Hold the clicker in one hand behind your back or out of view of your dog and have a reward in your other hand. Click to get your dog’s attention and then immediately give them the treat. Timing is essential as your dog needs to make a clear connection between the sound and receiving the treat.
Repeat this exercise over a few days until your dog automatically looks to you for a treat when they hear the click. Dogs tend to pick this connection up very quickly!
What do you want to teach your dog? Let’s start with a sit as it’s a very important skill that every dog should learn. If you’ve got a dog that will sit on command, they will be safer while waiting to cross the road and also won’t jump up when greeting new people. The sit helps with all sorts of basic doggie manners.
To train a sit, you can use your dog’s reward as a lure. Hold the treat up to just above your dog’s head so they naturally sit back to be able to see it. The moment your dog’s bottom hits the floor, click and immediately treat. Easy as that!
When you and your dog are confident using the reward as a lure, you can add a command word. In this instance, the most obvious choice would be ‘sit’, but you can use anything as long as it is short, clear and consistent.
Repeat as before with the lure but before you hold the treat up, say the command word. Again, when your dog’s bottom hits the floor, immediately click and treat. Your dog will soon sit on hearing the command word, knowing that a treat is coming, therefore bypassing the lure stage.
Keep training sessions short – around 10 minutes – to ensure they remain fun and not too tiring. When your dog is confidently sitting at the command word, you can gradually reduce the number of rewards but keep clicking. You will not need to give a treat every time you click as the click itself will have become the reward.
Once you’ve mastered the sit, why not try a ‘stay’ or ‘wait’? The sky’s the limit with clicker training and there are many dogs who have been trained to dance, ride skateboards and even one rescue dog who was taught to fly a plane!
I’ve spent 20 years writing about pets and exploring the wonderful relationships they have with their owners. I started as a staff writer on Dogs Today magazine, working my way up to become deputy editor in 2008. In 2010, I left the office to pursue a freelance career, relocated to north Norfolk and started a family.
Over the years I’ve contributed thoughtful human-interest features, celebrity interviews and investigative news stories to publications including The Sunday Times, Dogs Today, Dogs Monthly and Your Cat. I’ve also ghost-written veterinary books and press releases for the pet industry.
When I’m not writing, I enjoy long walks in the Norfolk countryside with my rescue lurcher Popsie. These are always followed by tea and cake.