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Clicker training is great for teaching dogs obedience and reinforcing good behavior. Our balanced trainers at Koru K9 use it every day with many of the dogs we work with across the country.

However, we’ve found that many dog owners are unclear about exactly what clicker training is, how it works and what its benefits are.

That’s why we’ve taken the time to break down everything you need to know about clicker training for dogs. Let’s dive in.

What is clicker training for dogs?

Clicker training, or marker training, is a technique you can use to teach your dog new commands and desired behaviors through positive reinforcement.

Using a dog training clicker—a handheld tool that makes a unique clicking sound when pressed—you simply mark the moment when your dog correctly performs a command or behavior and immediately follow that click by giving your dog a reward, like a treat or verbal praise.

The sound of the clicker tells your dog which behavior you’re rewarding, and the treat or praise tells them it’s behavior that you’re happy with.

Clicker training is a quick and effective way for you to communicate to your dog clearly and meaningfully what is expected of them.

How does clicker training for dogs work?

Clicker training helps your dog learn through positive reinforcement, one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning is a behavior modification method that encourages or discourages behaviors using rewards and consequences. Balanced dog trainers use a combination of the four quadrants, including positive reinforcement, to shape and modify a dog’s behavior.

Positive reinforcement means adding something favorable after a behavior to increase the likelihood of that behavior happening again.

During clicker training, you mark a desired behavior with a click then add a reward (like a treat, for example) immediately after your dog offers that behavior to encourage more of it. That’s positive reinforcement in action.

Over time, your dog will connect the behavior you’ve been marking with the resulting reward and start offering that good behavior voluntarily, meaning you no longer need to use the clicker. That’s operant conditioning in action.

It’s important to understand that clicker training for dogs is only effective for teaching and reinforcing behaviors that you want to stick around. While it’s great for new commands and shoring up desired behaviors, it’s not effective in addressing behavioral problems—especially severe issues.

In cases where behavior needs to be modified or corrected, we recommend a professional balanced trainer, who will use a combination of different quadrants.

The benefits of clicker training for dogs

Clicker training is popular among dog trainers and dog owners because it’s straightforward, effective and builds a trusting relationship. It also offers a few clear benefits.

Here are three of the biggest benefits of clicker training for dogs:

Communication — The key to effective dog training is clear and meaningful communication. You need to be able to tell your dog which behavior you’re rewarding in a way they understand. Clicker training gives you that ability.

Timing — In dog training, timing is crucial. Studies show you have just 1.3 seconds after a dog performs a command or behavior to either reward or correct it. That means you literally have a split second to mark a desired behavior. With a clicker, you can do that.

Precision — To reinforce a behavior, you need to ensure you’re marking the right action. When you’re training your dog how to sit, for example, you must mark as soon as their behind hits the ground—not before or after. Using a clicker offers that type of precision.

How to use a clicker for dog training

Below are five steps you can follow to use clicker training at home to teach your dog new commands and reinforce behavior.  

Keep in mind that the length of time it takes for clicker training to stick varies from dog to dog, so be patient during your training sessions.

1. Choose a clicker or marker

Dog training clickers are available online or at most pet stores. You can also use a verbal marker, like “Yes”, in place of a physical clicker.

2. Teach your dog what the sound of the click means

Introduce the clicker (also known “charging” or “loading” the clicker) by teaching your dog that the clicking sound means a reward is coming. All it takes is a little repetition. Click and reward; click and reward; click and reward. Repeat this approximately 20 times so your dog begins to associate the sound of the click with the incoming reward.

3. Set up a training session

Next, set up your training sessions in a low-distraction environment. It’s important to start your clicker training somewhere they can only focus on you. As they get more comfortable with the training, you can add more distraction to the environment. Remember to keep sessions short and sweet, and always end on a positive!

4. Reinforce desired behavior with a click and reward

Start clicker training by reinforcing the desired behavior. For example, if you’re teaching your dog to sit, voice your command (“Sit”), click as soon as their behind hits the ground and then reward. If your dog doesn’t yet understand the voice command, you can lure your dog into the desired behavior, then click and reward.

5. Fade out the clicker

Soon, your dog will start to understand that if they offer up the behavior, they’ll get a reward. At that point, you can begin to use the clicker more sparingly as your dog learns, and eventually stop using the clicker entirely.

While clicker training is something that owners can use at home to teach their dogs, it’s important to understand the importance of communication, precision and timing. If you’re rewarding at the wrong time or accidentally rewarding the wrong behavior, it can lead to miscommunication and conflict between you and your dog.At Koru K9, our balanced dog trainers are experts in clicker training, as well as working with young puppies, human-aggressive dogs and everything in between. If you’re interested in using clicker training with your dog but you’re unsure of a do-it-yourself approach, we can help. Reach out to us today.