Virtually everyone I come across, dog training client or not, has seen or heard of a clicker before. Countless new puppy owners are encouraged to buy a clicker and use it with their pup, but out of literally hundreds of clients I have yet to find a single one that can actually tell me how to use it! So, I figured it could be useful to give a thorough explanation of what a clicker is, what it is used for, and if you actually need one for your dog or not.
What Is a Clicker?
Clickers come in many shapes and sizes! In most cases a clicker is a square or rectangular piece of plastic with some type of metal piece inside or in the middle. When the button is pressed, this metal piece makes a clicking sound. Some clickers are “stronger” than others, with a loud click, or “softer” with a quiet click. They are created with the purpose of making the same sound each time the button is pushed.
What Is a Clicker For?
A clicker is used to communicate to a dog when they have done something we wanted them to do. The clicker by itself is only a noise, but when paired frequently with reinforcement, your dog can be conditioned to understand the sound means they have done the correct behavior. When used for this purpose (which is its intended purpose), a clicker is considered to be a “bridge”.
A bridge is a signal that communicates to an animal “Yes! That’s exactly what I’m looking for!” with much less words and confusion. Because they don’t speak our language, using a bridge allows us to more effectively work with our animals, by giving them consistent signals. If you have ever seen a dolphin trainer blow a whistle before giving the animal a fish, you have seen a bridge in use. By consistently and effectively letting our animals know when they have done the correct thing, regardless of whether we have food ready to give them at the moment, we can ensure the behavior we asked for is more likely to occur again.
How To Use a Clicker
Now, for an example of how a bridge might be used in every day life with your dog. For this example our bridge will be a clicker. Sasha teaches her puppy Bambi to sit by “clicking” when Bambi’s rear-end touches the ground, and giving her a treat. Later, when Sasha is watching TV, she calls Bambi over to her. Bambi runs as fast as she can, right when Sasha calls her name. Sasha doesn’t have any treats, but the clicker is still in her pocket, so she “clicks” when Bambi gets to her. At the sound of the clicker Bambi’s ears perk up, and Sasha praises her and runs to the kitchen with her to get a treat.
In our example if Sasha hadn’t used the clicker, and had simply trotted to the kitchen with Bambi to give her a treat, she would have only been reinforcing the behavior of Bambi running along with her. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is not the behavior she wanted to reinforce. Because she wanted to reinforce Bambi for coming enthusiastically when called, Sasha used the clicker just as Bambi reached her. This let the dog know that running up to Sasha was the correct behavior, and reinforcement was coming soon.
What if in this example Sasha didn’t have a clicker available? Clickers are a great way to let a dog know that they have done the correct behavior (if used properly) but that doesn’t mean they are always a practical solution. If Sasha’s clicker had been in the kitchen with the dog treats, it would have been completely useless to her at that point.
Do I Need a Clicker For My Dog?
Yes and no. A clicker can be a very useful tool, but as described above sometimes it isn’t the most practical. If you are training new behaviors in an active training session, and you have it out and available to you, a clicker is a perfect bridge. It sounds the exact same every time you use it, and is a loud and easily distinguishable noise. BUT, a clicker is extremely impractical as your only bridge! If you are training your dog using a clicker, and the clicker is anywhere else (even in your pocket!) there is a high likelihood you will not be able to remove it to “click” on time.
Clickers are also extremely impractical when working with your dog on a leash. Unless you have three or four arms, it is impossible to hold your dog’s leash, reinforce your dog using treats, and hold your clicker at the ready. This is why I recommend my clients have two kinds of bridges, a clicker, and a verbal bridge.
You don’t have to reach in your pocket to pull out and use a word, you simply say it! When recommending bridge words to my clients, I typically suggest the word “OK”. I have seen the word “Yes” used as well, but I personally feel ridiculous running around with my dog saying “yes!” “yes!” “yes!’ over and over. Choose something that is comfortable for you, but not something that you will use when addressing your dog in other situations. Many clients want to use “good boy” or “good girl”, but your bridge should be used very specifically and with precision. People tend to call their dogs “good” very frequently!
Thus, “OK” is my favorite choice. It is simple, easy to remember, and sounds relatively similar, no matter who is saying it. When using your verbal bridge ensure your speak clearly, concisely, and loud enough to be heard. You are saying “OK” not “okaaayyy” and you should imagine it as more of a sound than a word.
Teaching with a Clicker or Verbal Bridge
It does not matter if you are using a clicker, or your “OK”, the way to train a bridge is always the same. Simply ensure the bridge is followed immediately by food. You can do this a few times by itself, or just throw it in while you are working on behaviors. If my dog already knows how to sit, I would ask my dog to sit, and when their rear-end touches the ground say “OK” (or click) and give a treat.
To time your bridge correctly just imagine you are taking a photo of what “sit” looks like. The “OK” (or click) is when you push the button on the camera to take the photo. Repeat that simple step a few times, and your dog will catch on quickly. Always make sure your bridge comes BEFORE the food, and don’t reach for the treats in your pocket until after you have said “OK”.
Why Should I Use a Bridge?
Using a bridge will help your dog learn much faster during training, simply because the communication is occurring more efficiently. Your dog wants to succeed! Dogs enjoy learning new things, and your pup wants to figure out the fastest way to get that treat. By using a bridge you are helping your dog make the connection between the behavior and the command. The vast majority of dogs relish praise, and this is why your bridge becomes what is called a secondary reinforcer. This means your dog likes the sound, all by itself, just because of its previous association with food.
Using a bridge with your dog is quite similar to praising an employee for a job well done. For example, if Sasha has three projects at work, and gets paid at the end of the week, she is going to be reinforced for doing her job anyway. However, if after she completes each project, Sasha’s boss tells her it’s the best work he has seen, and he is excited to see how the next project turns out, Sasha is going to be more motivated by her work as a whole. Instead of simply trudging through each week for a paycheck, Sasha will feel more reinforced by her job as a whole and more motivated to go to work each day.
Your dog gets much the same reaction, even if it is much less complicated in nature. When you are consistently communicating with your dog by letting them know they are doing everything correct and reinforcement is on the way, your dog is going to be more enthusiastic when you ask them for anything. We want a dog that listens to us consistently, and clear communication is an important step in towards attentive dog! Continue to reinforce with treats periodically, and use your bridge every time your dog does something that you ask.
So Should I Get a Clicker?
Sure, but you don’t necessarily need one! A clicker is a useful tool when training new behaviors with your dog, but it is not a necessity. A verbal bridge is much more practical, and more important to have. Regardless of whether you choose to use a clicker or not, make sure to condition some type of bridge and use it consistently with your dog. If you do, your dog will learn faster, be more reliable when you ask them for behaviors, and will remain more motivated overall.