Clicker Training Explained.

I am often contacted by prospective clients who tell me that they have tried clicker training and “it didn’t work.” Hummmm. If we take a closer look at the science behind this method of training it will become clear that it does work, it works really well, but if the application or mechanics are not taught correctly people can run into trouble.

Clicker training is a popular nickname for Positive Reinforcement Training using a Marker Signal. The clicker is simply a mechanical gizmo that many trainers use because it does the job really well. Lots of things could be used in place of a clicker. More on that later.

I’m going to take Positive Reinforcement Training using a Marker Signal apart and look at each of the two parts. Most people understand the concept of the first part, Positive Reinforcement Training.

If we reward a dog for a specific behavior, then that behavior is likely to continue. If the dog sits and then that behavior is followed by a treat, the dog will likely offer a sit again in hopes of another treat. Just think of how fast we can train a dog to beg at the dinner table by slipping them one piece of food! Nothing complicated about that.

Now, we get to the second part, the Marker Signal. This is harder to understand but this is the part that is critical to learning in dogs.   

Science tells us that if we can reward dogs at the exact moment that they are doing the desired behavior, learning excelerates! But there is a problem. It is impossible.

Even a second or two is too long and if the dog is at any distance, it is even more impossible. The longer the lag time between the behavior and the reward, the more learning is degraded. So what is a trainer to do?
What if we activated a sound, like a Clicker, and then followed it with a treat? What if we did that twenty times in a row? The dog would be getting pretty excited about hearing that Clicker. Why? Because it predicts a treat. The sound of the Clicker and the anticipation of food have become paired. In training lingo this is called a Conditioned Reinforcer, also known as a Mark.



Trainers often use Clickers for this simply because they are inexpensive, easy to use, and they have a distinctive sound that the dog does not hear in its daily life. The sound must be unique to the dog’s training environment. You could use a whistle, a beep, a cluck, at bell or anything the dog can perceive as long as it meets the requirements I just mentioned.

Let’s say we are training the dog to lie down. There are three parts to this training sequence and these parts must always occur in the same order.

I like to call these three parts events:
1-“Down”— the dog lies down;
2- Click — the trainer activates the marker signal sound at the exact instant the dog lies down;
3-Treat — the trainer promptly delivers a treat to the dog as a desirable consequence to lying down.

The sound of the Clicker has become “Conditioned”. It predicts a treat. The sound of the Click has become almost as powerful as the treat itself.
Now we have a way to reward the behavior at the instant it happens! There is no lag time. Learning skyrockets. This is huge!! What we thought was impossible is now…… completely possible! Once dogs understand this sequence they can learn new behaviors very rapidly.

Positive Reinforcement Training does not include permissiveness.  All dogs need boundries and a clear understanding of “house rules”.  Please read my article on The Number One Rule to learn more.

If you have tried Clicker Training before and have not been successful, I encourage you to contact a qualified trainer and give it another try. It does work, it is brilliant, and your dog will love it!
Copyright 2017 Noel Hoffmann