What is clicker training?

What is clicker training?

You might have overheard people talking about ”clicker training” lately? You’re thinking “oh, well”. Another new and revolutionary method that is the solution to every dog owner’s problems. Actually it’s neither.

Text: Morten Egtvedt & Cecilie Køste


The history of clicker training

One can’t actually claim that clicker training is a new invention. The method rests upon scientific learning principles which have been known since the 1930s. However, it’s not until the last ten years that it has become known in dog training circles, perhaps mostly thanks to the American dolphin trainer, biologist and author Karen Pryor. She is the author of several books on the practical use of operant conditioning, or clicker training. During the early nineties she travelled around the US together with Gary Wilkes, giving a number of seminars for dog owners, and this was the beginning of a small revolution.

Karen Pryor

The fast growing popularity of clicker training is also connected to the ever growing Internet. Through home pages and mailing-lists, dog owners all over the world could read articles by Karen Pryor, Marian & Bob Bailey and other “clicker pioneers”. Dog owners in the US could discuss problems with other clicker trainers in Sweden and Australia on a daily basis, something that was completely unimaginable just a few years earlier.

If you log onto the internet and search on “clicker training”, you’ll come across a huge number of home pages, mailing-lists, books and films on this topic.

Ok, and this amazing method is supposed to be the answer to every imaginable problem a dog owner might have? No, unfortunately not. The result is, just as with any other dog training method, dependant on your commitment and practical skills. If you place your grand mother behind the wheel of a race car it is not necessarily going to go at top speed. But it’s over-simplifying matters to just blame the car for this…

Ok, but clicker training is as mentioned not new and revolutionary, and it’s no miracle cure either. Why should I then bother to finish reading this book? The answer is simply that clicker training has been shown to be a very effective and interesting training method, well worth getting to know and understand. It is up to you if you want to embrace 100 % clicker training, or just learn the method and add it to your repertoire together with other methods. The only thing you risk when reading this book is learning something new!

Today clicker training is used in a number of areas. The method works just as well for teaching pets loose leash walking and coming when called, as advanced obedience or tricks. Clicker training is used in all tracking, search and rescue and agility. Even trainers of hunting dogs have shown an interest in the method. New fields of applications are discovered a long with new dog owners learning the method.

But exactly what is clicker training? Well, in the days when it was only Karen Pryor who was talking about clicker training, that was a question that could be answered fairly easily. After the fact that more and more dog owners have started to apply the method, it couldn’t be avoided that the method begun to split up in different ways. Some have continued to work according to Karen’s way, while others have picked parts of clicker training and added these to their old methods. Nowadays when a dog owner claims to be a “clicker trainer” that doesn’t necessarily say much about the way this person really trains. Because of this, we’ll start out with clarifying how we choose to define clicker training.


Four features of “true” clicker training:

There are four aspects that define clicker training.

  1. Focus shall be kept on rewarding the correct behaviour.
  2. The dog shall offer the behaviour voluntarily
  3. The use of a conditioned reinforcer
  4. We focus on what we can see

We will now explain each aspect in more detail.



When clicker training, we aren’t so concerned with correcting the dog for the “wrong” behaviour or for stuff we don’t want the dog to do. Instead we keep our focus on the small things that the dog does that are wanted, and rewarding (reinforcing) these. When a behaviour is reinforced, the dog will repeat this behaviour more often. If you’re diligent with rewarding the dog for doing stuff you like, the dog will soon be doing these things very often. It sounds simple – and it really is!

But what about unwanted behaviours? You can’t stop the dog from being up to mischief by rewarding it, can you? That sounds so weird! In reality, it is not only possible – it’s at least twice as effective! Focus on what you want your dog to be doing instead of what you don’t want it to be doing. Instead of punishing the dog for barking, you can reward it ever so often for being quiet. When the dog is rewarded for being quiet, the periods without barking will become longer and longer. And that means the periods of barking will become shorter and shorter. You see?

You just need to change your perspective. For every unwanted behaviour that your dog has learnt, we’re sure you can come up with at least one behaviour you would like it to display instead. Is the dog pulling on the leash? Reward it for walking on a loose leash. Is your dog busy looking at other dogs all the time? Reward it for looking at you! Does the dog jump up on people when it wants to say hello? Only lavish it with attention when it keeps four feet on the ground!

When you’ve figured out what it is you want your dog to do, all you need to do is reward that behaviour enough. You’ll soon see the change in your dog. When you start thinking like this, we guarantee that a whole new perspective will open up and not just on dog training. It is worth while to think about which methods you employ when you want your children, spouse or colleagues do what you want…

But even if we do think that it is more effective to reward the things the dog does right, that does not mean that a clicker trainer never utters a “no” to her or his dog, or in other ways have boundaries for the dog when it is up to mischief. When your dog is doing something wrong, like for example runs off or is on its way to counter surf, naturally you shouldn’t just hang around and withhold the click until it gets off the counter again! Just stop it right away! This really has nothing to do with “training” – this is handling of an acute situation or “fire fighting” if you will. Once the fire’s out you can revert right back to thinking about how you’re going to teach the dog what you would like it to do instead of running off or counter surfing. This way you don’t have to keep fire fighting for the rest of your dog’s life…

You have to keep training and fire fighting separate – and see to it that you devote a lot more time to training than to fire fighting! In planned training situations it is more effective to reward the things the dog does right. With positive reinforcement the training will go a lot faster, you’ll have a dog that enjoys working and you’ll not have to deal with all the negative effects that come with scolding, leash popping and other negative methods.



This aspect is from our point of view the most important one, and it’s this aspect that makes clicker training so much fun – and so effective. Imagine you’re going to teach your dog to sit down. If you’ve read other kinds of dog training books you might have read that you should move a treat above the dog’s head and lure it in to sitting down, and perhaps even put pressure on the dog’s rear end.

In clicker training, we go about things a whole lot smarter. Or rather – we’ll do nothing. We’ll just be ready, clicker in hand and treats in our pocket – waiting patiently. When the dog voluntarily sits down, you click and treat. The next time, the dog will sit down sooner. You want the dog to come when called? Click and treat every time the dog comes to you without being called. Soon the dog will be coming up to you a whole lot more often than before.

Your dog already knows how to sit, down, stand, run, walk nicely, carry things in its mouth, bark, keep still and a whole list of other things. We’re certain it does all of this many times a day! If you want to train your dog to anything of the above, start by rewarding when the dog does it on its own accord – just catch it. When you reward a behaviour the dog is likely to repeat the behaviour more often. And when you’re certain that the dog will do the behaviour you can add a signal for the said behaviour (we’ll discuss more about adding signals to behaviours later on in this book).

In the beginning it often takes a little time before the dog starts to offer behaviours spontaneously. But when it comes to realize that you often click and treat when it offers behaviours it will become more and more skilled in trying things by itself. The dog will so to speak become better at the game “Hot or Cold?”. Do you want me to sit? Down? Not that either? Spin around? Yes! Training dogs like that is amazing fun. This is zest for life in practice! Simple? Yes! Effective? No doubt about it!



Finally – enter the clicker! A conditioned reinforcer is something that signals that the real reward is on its way (for example a treat, a ball or something else the dog likes). The clicker is a small plastic box which elicits a sharp click sound. When the dog has learnt that the sound means that a treat is on its way, the clicker conveys very clear information to the dog. With the clicker you can reinforce very exact, just as the dog takes a few steps on a loose leash, just as the dog looks at you instead of at the other dog across the street, just as both elbows reach the ground as the dog lies down. In other words, you can tell the dog exactly which behaviour you’re after. Experienced trainers know how instrumental timing is for the final result. With improved timing you can cut the time it takes to train something new by many percent.

As a rule, if you click just as the dog does what you want it to, it doesn’t matter that it takes a few seconds for the real reinforcer (the treat, the ball et c) to reach the dog. It is what the dog was doing as it heard the click that will register with the dog. Think of the clicker as a camera! When you click you take a photo of what it is you want your dog to do. And then the reinforcement follows.

However, a conditioned reinforcer can be something other than a clicker. We’ll get back to that later on.



Have you ever wondered what’s going on in your dog’s head? What the scoundrel’s thinking when he doesn’t come when you call him? Rest assured, you’re not the only one who has wondered. A great many dog owners analyze themselves silly trying to understand their dogs. The problem is that it is not possible for us to know what our dogs are thinking. Trying to figure out what is going on in the dog’s mind will at best lead you to qualified guesses and interpretations (which indeed might be interesting to discuss with other dog people over coffee).

As clicker trainers, we’ve made everything a whole lot easier for us. We simply don’t care about what’s going on in the dog’s mind, or other stuff that we can’t see (at least not while we’re training). Concentrating on what you can see with your own eyes will take you a lot further.

And there are a great many things we can see when we train our dogs:

  • Situation: We can see what’s happening around us when we’re training
  • Behaviour: We can see the behaviour the dog executes.
  • Consequence: We can see what happens after the behaviour, for example “the dog got a treat (when it sat down)” or “the dog reached the lamp post (when it pulled on the leash)”.
  • Timing: We can see how exact we can be with delivering the reinforcement. What was the dog doing when it heard the click?
  • Criteria: We can see what we want the dog to do to make us click.
  • Rate of reinforcement: We can see how much time passes between every reward.
  • Quality of reinforcement: We can see how intense the dog is when it receives the reward.

All of the above are things that we can see. And it will give you more information than all the attempts at mind reading in the world. We can’t change what the dog thinks (or at least we haven’t figured out how to do that yet). But we can change our training. And when we change our training, we have to change the stuff we can see and that we actually control.

Since we focus on what we can see, the advice you’ll get from a clicker trainer will be more specific. Here are some common training tips that you’ll never get from us:

  • “You’ve got to improve your leadership”.
  • “It is important that the dog trusts you”.
  • “The dog must regard you as its leader”.
  • “You’ve got to improve the working relationship with your dog”.
  • “You’ve got to work more as a team”.

We’re sure these are well meaning bits of advice, but what in the world do they mean? This kind of abstract advice is to be found in many books about dog training. How in the world is a dog owner going to understand how he or she should train their dog after having received that kind of advice?

On the other hand, we often give advice like:

  • “You were half a second late with your click. Do your best to be more precise the next time. “
  • “Don’t call or nag your dog when it’s busy watching the other dogs. Withhold your click until it looks at you voluntarily instead!”
  • “Put some distance between you and the other dogs at first. Move closer when your dog can look at you even if there are other dogs around. “
  • “You’re letting a bit too much time pass between each click. You don’t want any more than 5 seconds between each click at this stage in your training. “
  • “Those treats look a bit dry. Try these juicy meatballs instead!”

We hope that you can see the difference. So if you want to be real clicker savvy, we advice you to forget all those abstract ways of putting things, and focus on what you can see instead. Be as specific as you can when advising others and expect specific advice from instructors, book and others that come with advice. It might not sound as fancy, but it works!


What clicker training is not

A lot of people buy a clicker and begin to use it in training. However, there is a huge difference between using a clicker and using the method that is clicker training.

A lot of people have begun to use the clicker as a means to reward more exact, and that’s nice of course. But they continue to base a lot of their training on correcting their dog when it does something wrong (and thus breaks rule no. 1). They help, model and lure the dog to get it to understand what to do (and thus breaks rule no. 2). In short, they train much as they’ve always trained. This is NOT clicker training. It not even close to clicker training, it doesn’t matter how much they click. This is traditional training with the use of a clicker. It might be more effective than regular training without the clicker, but they lose out on so many of the real benefits of “true” clicker training.

To complicate things a bit further, you don’t even need a clicker to clicker train. A conditioned reinforcer can be anything – a clicker, a whistle, praise, a smacking sound, a hand signal, you name it. Anything the dog can perceive can be used as a conditioned reinforcer. Don’t get hung up on the clicker. It’s used because in many cases it’s the most fitting choice. If you figure out something better, please give us a call straight away! Remember that it is the principles of training that are important – not the small plastic box.


The benefits of clicker training

  • You will mainly work with reinforcing wanted behaviours instead of correcting wrong ones. That creates a dog that is happy to work and that enjoys the training and not a dog afraid of doing something wrong.
  • Instead of luring and commanding the dog you will teach it that to a high degree figure stuff out which behaviour you want. That means that the risk for your dog to become dependant on help is smaller.
  • Since the dog is taught to voluntarily offer behaviour from the beginning, you will get a dog that participates in the training of its own free will. One doesn’t have to worry about a bad working relationship with a thoroughly trained clicker dog!
  • A clicker trained behaviour seems easier to generalize into new environments and situations. In other words, if the dog has learnt a behaviour in a certain situation it’s easy to train it to execute the same behaviour in other situations.
  • With the aid of a clicker you can reinforce very precisely – the timing of the reward improves. That makes training more efficient, you save time and you’re able to achieve the precision you want.
  • When clicker training, we teach the dog what to do first. We add a cue when the dog executes the behaviour perfectly. Since we teach the behaviour first and then add the cue, we get better cues.
  • Clicker training becomes amazing fun after a few months of training. After a while you’ll get what we refer to as a “clicker wise “dog. A clicker wise dog knows the rules of the game, it loves to work, it offers behaviours left, right and centre and it is very creative. New behaviours are trained in no time. We hope that you get to experience what it’s like to train such a dog. It’s a true high!
  • As a clicker trainer, you’ll get better at observing behaviour and “read” your dog, splitting your training into small parts and increasing the difficulty in small steps after the dog’s ability.

And – it’s just so much fun when you get started! You’ll get in a good mood with this kind of training.

Want to learn more about clicker training…?