“Do I have to use a clicker?” is one of the most commonly asked questions. My answer is no you don’t, as long as you are ok with your dog learning more slowly than the rest of the class. Using a clicker is not necessary in training. People have trained millions of animals without a clicker. But really, who wants training to take forever and require incessant repetitions? Not me. I want my trainee to learn quickly and with as little effort on my part as possible. I like training the easy way.
The “click” from the clicker tells the trainee a lot of information. It says “You are correct”. This becomes a powerful motivator and you end up with a dog that works to figure out what you want. The dog is actually trying to make the clicker go off but in order to make that happen it must get a behavior correct. The difference between a clicker trained dog and one trained without is dramatic.
“Can I just use my voice?” is always the next question. Sure you can. Think about this though. How many times a day does your dog hear you talking? What percentage of those words are intended for the dog? Probably not a lot. Unless you live alone and only have your dogs to talk to. Even in that situation you have a dog that is used to hearing conversation and is also used to ignoring it. So how powerful is a spoken word?
I always use a clicker to mark correct behavior in the initial training phase. As my dog makes progress I introduce a verbal marker. This verbal marker is only a back up marker. Sometimes I might not have a clicker or sometimes I’m just not fast enough to click so I use the verbal marker. It’s not as strong as the click but in an emergency I’ll use what I have. In order for the verbal marker to be powerful it has to be rewarded just like the click. When you click your dog you must reward your dog. Same goes for the verbal marker. Accidental “marks” still have to be rewarded because you want to maintain the integrity of the marker.
Now that you are re-thinking the whole clicker thing where do you start? Begin with loading the clicker. This is where you “click” then reward your dog. During this phase your dog is learning to associate the click with a reward. The click is only as powerful as the reward is rewarding……. Think paychecks. Which is more motivating, $2000 or $2? For your dog it may mean giving a piece of hot dog instead of a cheerio. Every dog is different. Find what works for your dog. Things other than food can also be used as rewards but that’s a different article.
Once your dog understands that click equals reward then you are ready to train. Start with something simple. Your dog walks towards you. “Click” then reward. You just reinforced the coming when called behavior. How easy was that? Your dog glances your way. “Click” then reward. You just reinforced focus! So simple. If this is so easy what’s the catch? Maybe your dog staring at you a lot? Possibly your dog wanting to work and constantly offering behaviors?
“Will I always have to use the clicker?” No you will not. The clicker is used to communicate with the dog. Once the dog understands the behavior they no longer need that communication. Now if you want to refine the behavior you will use the clicker. Lets say your dog understands sit but you want them to sit more quickly. You no longer need to click the sit but you will click when you see your dog sitting faster. Make sense? This is called raising the criteria. Think of it as grades in school. Once your dog masters the kindergarten level (just the sit) you are ready to move to first grade (speed of sitting). Each time you progress a grade, use the clicker but it is not needed for the previous level. So your decision to use the clicker will be made on each individual behavior.
The benefits of using a clicker to mark behavior:
*Dog learns more quickly.
*Easier to communicate with your dog.
*The click is very precise which means you can mark tiny behaviors that become more complicated behaviors.
*The click sound stands out from background noise.
*It teaches a dog the learning process. Once your dog understands the “training game” they process more quickly which means shorter acquisition times.
Remember that the click marks the behavior the dog is doing when it hears the click. Whatever that may be. As long as your reward is appropriate your dog will learn. If in the past your dog has ignored the clicker that means the reward was not sufficient (most likely). You can always start over.