A clicker is a small box that you can press to make a clicking noise, and it’s a tool you can use to tell your dog “That’s it! Do that again!!” You start off by teaching the dog to associate the click with something good: Click the clicker, and every time you do, you give the dog a treat (in some circumstances, you can use a toy instead of a treat, but it’s very important that the click is always paired with something the dog really likes). Once your dog realizes that the click means that they’re about to get a treat, you can start clicking when they do something you like. For example, the moment your dog’s rump hits the floor, you can click, give them a treat, and they start to learn that sitting is a good thing. As they start to offer the sit more reliably, you can fade out the clicker and the treats and replace them with praise, toys, or scratches in your dog’s favorite spot.
The major benefit of the clicker is that it captures the exact moment that a good behavior is happening, giving you a little extra time to get your dog’s reinforcement to them without losing the incredibly important aspect of timing.
Why not just use praise to tell the dog they’ve done it right?
A lot of clients ask, “Why can’t I just say ‘good dog’ when my dog sits instead of using the clicker?” That is definitely an option, but some of the clarity of communication gets lost when we bring human speech into the equation. Our tone of voice can change, or the length of the syllables, which means that your dog might hear a high pitched “GOOD DOG!” when they start coming towards you when you call, or you may quietly say “Goooooooood doooooooog” when they’re laying down calmly. Not only do these sound different to your dog, but they may also have different meanings to you – one of them means “I’m going to treat the heck out of you!” whereas the other one really means something like, “thank goodness you aren’t bouncing off the walls right now, please don’t move.” The “magic” of the clicker is that it sounds the same every time, and has a very concrete meaning (a treat is coming).
That said, the clicker isn’t for every situation, and some dogs may even be afraid of the sound. In classes and in private sessions, we’ll help you decide when to use the clicker (or whether it’s a good tool for you and your dog at all!) We often use a verbal marker in place of the clicker, usually a single word that we can say in the same tone of voice throughout a training session and that will have the same meaning as the clicker (i.e., That was good, and here’s your treat!).