Clicker training is most commonly used in a technique called “shaping”, in which the dog learns a behavior in tiny incremental steps. The clicker is simply a noise used to precisely isolate the dog’s action, so she knows it will provide a reward. Think of how fast your dog can move, and you’ll know that you could be several behaviors behind by the time you say, “Good Girl!”. Part of using the clicker is that it encourages you to precisely mark behaviors, so your dog is clear on what is being rewarded.
The sound of the clicker has no inherent value until you give it a value.
“Charging” the clicker is like charging a battery…it gives it power. You charge the clicker by pairing it with a reward. With your dog nearby (small room or on lead) in a non-distracting situation, click the clicker and immediately provide a treat. Using part of the dog’s kibble (dry food) as treats is a good way to start. Do this before a meal, so the dog has a bit of an appetite. Do it about 30 times. You’re just giving your dog part of her meal slowly, but she’s learning that the sound of the clicker promises food. (She’s also learning to associate your nearness with the nurturing quality of food, which helps build a bond.)
Do this a couple times a day for 2 or 3 days, and your dog will get used to the clicker providing food. You’ll know it’s working when the click brings your dog’s attention to bear immediately on you.
Here’s a pretty nice video from Emily Larlham of “kikopup” on the basics. It’s great to see some of the amazing behaviors displayed here.
Please realize that the clicker is just a tool for clearly marking behavior. It has advantages and disadvantages. Here’s a soundwave comparison that I recorded of the difference between a click, the word “Yes”, and the word, “Yep”.
The click has two parts (the click and the un-click), otherwise it would be the hands-down winner. It’s downside is that it can be cumbersome, what with holding a lead, holding and using the clicker, and handling treats or toys. Your “Yup!” is always available, unless you have a mouth full of treats yourself…that said, the clicker is the tool of choice in “shaping”.
I think it’s good to charge the clicker and the “Yup!” We discussed the “Yup!” in this earlier blogpost.
In the kikopup video above, Emily Larlham briefly discusses the 3 main methods of training:
Clicker training is at its best in shaping, and, while it can also be useful in the other methods, learning to use your voice allows for a much more nuanced relationship with your dog. More about that in some later post.