What’s the Deal with the Clicker?
Chelsea Murray CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP, CTDI
Training dogs is both a science and an art. Those who do it well make a lot of progress with their dogs and make it look easy! Training dogs takes several human mechanic skills like carefully delivering treats and winding up show leads. One of the most important mechanics that you should develop as you train your show dog is the ability to use a marker easily and correctly.
A marker tells the dog exactly what behavior they are doing that is earning them reinforcement. It is a clear and concise way to say to your dog, “Yes! That is what I like, and a treat is coming.” The nice thing about clear communication is it leads to quick results! A marker is a short and distinct noise that always means the same thing. Many people use a clicker as it is convenient, and it always makes the exact same noise, so it is effective. And when a clicker is not around, we can use a noise like clicking our tongue or saying “Yes!”
Many people worry about using markers like clickers. Some think that they are not necessary, it might be one more thing that they have to fade out, or they don’t work. Some people even think that they will not be able to use a clicker well because they aren’t coordinated. I am here to burst your bubble today! These effective tools are easy to use and will make a tremendous difference in your training program.
How is a Clicker or Marker Used?
As I mentioned, the clicker or marker tells the dog “Yes! That is what I want, and a treat is coming!” A clicker is used:
When you first train a behavior you can use luring, using a piece of food to slowly guide the dog into position; capturing, seeing a behavior you like and rewarding it; and shaping, rewarding small approximations towards a larger behavior goal. With all these methods we have to teach the dog a behavior that we want before we name it. So, we lure the dog into a position or wait for them to offer behaviors and then we let them know when they have gotten it right with a click followed by a treat. When the behavior is consistent, and the dog understands the skill then we can name it!
So, for example when luring a sit. With a puppy standing take a piece of food to the puppy’s nose and slowly lift it up. The puppy bends the knees and rocks their weight back until the bum hits the floor. Click the moment their rear hits the floor and then deliver a treat. When it is easy to quickly lure this behavior, a cue can be added. I would say, “sit”, lure the behavior, click when the bum touches the floor, and then deliver a treat. Over a few mini sessions of 3-5 minutes, I would reduce how much I used the food lure, until eventually it was faded away.
Clarification for Better Training and a More Engaged Learner
The clicker means the same thing each time for the dog. It also indicates when they get it right, which can reduce a lot of frustration for the learner. Often, in traditional training methods that utilize corrections, a dog can be corrected several times before they happen upon the right answer. For example, if I am training a dog to gait for the show ring and they are lagging. As the dog lags a leash correction is often used to speed to the dog. The small leash jerk happens when the dog is wrong over and over. Until finally they are in the correct position, expected to hold it and then either nothing happens, or they receive reinforcement. For soft dogs (who are more likely to be lagging than forging) this constant correction can be very demeaning and disheartening to these dogs and usually results in even less enthusiasm to gait. The other challenge is that it repetitively tells the dogs what is wrong, but doesn’t tell them what is right. When training our dogs, the focus should always be on what we want from them, not what we “don’t” want. The clicker tells the dogs when they do get it right and gives us the ability to communicate that quickly. The dog is eager to earn more reinforcement and continues to try the reinforced behavior. And the more we click and treat the correct behavior, the more they will offer it! This leads us to a dog who does all the right things!
In addition to getting better results through clear communication, the marker also creates a happier and more engaged learner. Think about sitting in an office working on an excel spreadsheet. You are working on something new and are a bit unsure, but your boss continues to come by and says, “wrong” and walks away. Now, the boss has told you there is a bonus involved for completion. And instead that boss now walks by and acknowledges the pieces of it that you are doing right, leading more productive and correct work from you. Which learning environment would you want? Which would lead you to complete the assignment enthusiastically and correctly? When dogs know what we want and are motivated by the reward that is offered, we have a learner who is happy and engaged. This leads to more productive training sessions, strong and reliable skills, and ultimately a good show dog!
Using Clickers to Fine Tune Small Behaviors
Clickers are also excellent tools to fine tune small show behaviors. We can use a clicker to capture and isolate small body movements to improve a dog’s show ring performance. Teaching specific cues like “ears” or ears up to improve expression, “tail” to lift the tail or cause it to wag, and “lean” or shift your weight forward can improve how flashy your dog is in the ring. We can even work on basic behaviors like gaiting with the head forward instead of looking at you to improve straightness.
Ear shaping video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h46jdQorE6o
Using a clicker helps clarify to the dog exactly what we are looking for and through capturing and free shaping every owner can teach their dogs each component of the show ring routine peacefully and positively – from learning to accept body handling for grooming and the exam through fine tuning small behaviors and putting specific steps or body parts on verbal cues, you too can have a great time in the show ring.
So, What’s Holding You Back? While many are concerned about their ability to use this tool, rest assured it is normal to feel a little uncomfortable with new tools and skills. With a little practice on your coordination you will be clicking your way to show ring success in no time. Want some help getting started? Check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jerscrXUYw
And for more help on how to utilize the clicker to improve your show ring routine, Check out the Mentor Program! https://showdogprepschool.com/mentor-program/