A reader asks for more information on training her dog with a clicker.
Q: My dog trainer has suggested I start training my eight-week-old puppy at home, using a clicker. I’m not familiar with this method. Can you tell me more about it?
Tony says: The clicker is a small, box-like device which, when pressed, makes an audible click. It is not designed to instigate behaviour but is used to pinpoint (mark) a single behaviour you like and want more of — eye contact, for example. The dog learns that the click means a reward is coming (usually a tiny piece of food), and the click tells the dog the exact point where he got it correct.
Regarding teaching eye contact, dogs look at us fleetingly. But with a clicker, you click the second the dog looks at you, and then reach for a treat. You have then pinpointed that particular behaviour (eye contact), and the dog learns quickly to repeat the action. However it does take a little bit of getting used to for a new owner, especially with a wriggly puppy and a lead in one hand.
I usually start my classes using a marker word instead. It’s exactly the same principle, but a short verbal word is used instead of a click. Once the owner has understood the technique and timing, they can confidently handle the clicker.
Clicker training (and using a marker word) is amazingly effective because dogs do everything way quicker than we do. Straightforward praise and a reward are usually delivered too slowly, and are too much information for the animal to process. A click (or verbal marker) is quick and a bridge to the reward.