How to train your pet with a clicker?

Although clicker training may seem very technical at first, once you understand the basics and with a little practice, you quickly will get the hang of it. In this article, we will explain what you need to know before you start.

Reading time : 10 min

Until recently, dog training was synonymous with a perfectly obedient and submissive dog, living in fear of its owner. It was common to use a coercive method of training to obtain a dog’s total submission and obedience. People did not care about training a puppy or dog differently, ascendancy, coercion and authority being the norm.

The 2000s saw the rise of a new form of canine and feline training, coming from the United States. Ethology and canine psychology were taken into consideration and dog obedience was no longer achieved in spite of the dog's well-being or at the expense of the relationship with its owner.

Whatever the name, cooperative care method, education by positive reinforcement or positive education, dogs and cats play a major role in their own education. This new way of learning requires the trust, willingness and therefore the full cooperation of the pet. And these training techniques are just as valid for small dogs as they are for hounds, whose training requires a certain amount of skill.

Clicker training is an integral part of positive education. Imported directly from the United States, it has worked wonders for many years.

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What is clicker training?

Clicker training is a method of training by conditioning. It only requires a clicker and a packet of your pet's favourite treats. It works exactly the same as cricket clickers used by American GIs during WWII.

The clicker works as a small plastic box with a metal tab that is activated to make a sound.

Why use a clicker?

The clicker is used to train a pet to adopt a desired behaviour. But it is also used to indicate to the pet that it has performed the behaviour expected by its owner. The click validates the attitude, but it also announces a reward. This method is based on classical conditioning, which highlights the relationship between stimulus and reaction in dogs.

Clicker training is a training method that is easy to learn. It is truly within the reach of all owners who wish to live with a trained dog but who are also concerned about its well-being and the relationship between them. That said, it does require the understanding that timing is everything if you are to achieve satisfactory results: click at the exact moment of the action to encourage the right attitude. The clicker and the act of rewarding the dog are therefore inseparable. In this way, the pet will associate its good behaviour with the click and therefore with the reward.

How to use a clicker

Clicker training is all about progressive and positive reinforcement. In other words, punishment is never an option. That is why it is important to be in the right mindset.

If the dog does what is expected from it, it will receive a treat. But, if the dog's behaviour is not suitable, the dog will not get anything, but it will not be punished or reprimanded either. It is the reward or lack of reward that encourages or helps to reverse the attitude or bad habits of the dog.

If the dog owner feels nervous or rushed, it may become impatient and possibly punish its dog if it does not understand. It is therefore important to choose the right place and right time to train a dog. Trying to train a dog right before going out in the morning might not be the best idea as the dog might be focused on not relieving itself on the carpet. It is then best to postpone the dog's training session because patience, positivity, confidence, and perseverance are the key to success.

What precautions should be taken in clicker training?

The first thing is to make sure that the dog is not deaf. But even in this case, nothing is lost. The dog clicker can be replaced by a laser pointer. The light signal can perfectly replace the click, but you need to make sure to exaggerate the gestures so that the dog perceives them, at least at the beginning to get its attention.

The click is also an unknown sound for the dog. It is therefore important, at least initially, not to click too close to the dog, so as not to risk frightening it.

Furthermore, it is essential not to be insistent if the exercise fails partially or completely. It is also important not to question everything, whether it is the dog's or the owner’s abilities. A dog that does not do what is immediately asked of it is not stupid or stubborn. The instructions may be too ambitious at the moment. The solution is simply to lower expectations somewhat and to proceed in stages.

Training should not exceed 10-15 minutes. One of the secrets to success is to stop the training while the dog is still enthusiastic and fully cooperative. This way, it will remember it as a positive experience and the frustration generated will make it eager to do it again. If the exercises continue until the dog is bored, it will not enjoy them as much and may not be as playful the next time.

Finally, the results of clicker training may take more or less time, depending on the nature of the dog, its dominant character, or its ability to concentrate.

How to start clicker training your dog?

First, before moving on to the actual training exercises, the dog must become familiar with the clicker. It will have to get used to the new sound, but above all, it will have to learn that this sound is the signal of a reward. This is the first phase of conditioning.

To do this, it is important to work in a quiet place where there are no distractions, preferably indoors. During the entire exercise, it is best not to talk. If the dog becomes agitated if it asks you to play, ignore it and continue the exercise. Timing is everything, so the treat should be given immediately after the click as the dog adopts or approaches the desired behaviour. Repeat the exercise between 15 and 20 times over several days until the dog understands that its attitude, the click, and the reward are closely linked. This is called "loading the clicker".

Once the familiarisation phase is over, it is time to move on to the training exercises. The first step is to get the dog's attention. To do this, stay still, click and reward as soon as the dog turns towards you. It won't take long for the dog to understand that when it gives you its attention, it gets a treat. Then increase its attention time by deliberately prolonging the time it looks at you and the click. Make sure you increase the time reasonably. When these instructions are well assimilated, keep the reward at random to maintain its attention, but praise the dog each time.

In summary, the steps in clicker training are as follows:

  • Familiarising the dog with the sound of the clicker by clicking and rewarding
  • Work in a quiet area free from distractions
  • Load the clicker, i.e., reward each desired behaviour with a click and a treat
  • Get the dog's attention by standing still and clicking as soon as it turns towards you
  • Start training with specific exercises
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Which training methods are used in clicker training?

Luring

This is often the first method used in clicker training. It involves the use of a dog clicker in conjunction with the handing of a treat or toy that the dog particularly enjoys to encourage a behaviour. The lure must be well-positioned to encourage the dog to adopt the correct behaviour. The lure method is an excellent way to train a dog and provide basic training: "sit", "down", "heel", "stay" for example.

Shaping

This second method consists of teaching a complex exercise by breaking it down and including steps so that it is more comprehensible to the dog. A request that is too ambitious can be discouraging for the dog, who will become bored, and for the owner, who may become impatient. By incorporating steps, this method of dog training makes the exercise more comprehensive and less laborious.

The idea is to reinforce each of the steps that will lead to the expected behaviour. Impatient and excited by the progress, the dog will then suggest behaviours on its own. It is at this point that the demands are increased to bring the dog closer to the desired behaviour. It is, therefore, necessary to click wisely and sparingly until the dog reproduces the desired behaviour.

Capturing

With its success, the dog will naturally and spontaneously suggest behaviours. You should encourage it by clicking on each behaviour that you want to reinforce. This technique contributes to consolidating your relationship and the complicity between you and your dog, as the dog becomes a real actor in its training.

Targeting

A final clicker training technique is the use of targets. These targets are used to teach the dog to follow an object with its eyes or to touch an object with its nose or paw for example. There is also the target stick, which is very useful to guide or direct the dog during an exercise. You simply click when the dog looks at the stick, noses it, licks it, and bumps it. You then give the dog a treat after each click.

With repeated training, the rewards will become random, for example, every 30 clicks. It is important that the rewards do not disappear completely to maintain the dog's attention. The next step is to incorporate verbal cues, e.g., 'come', 'sit', 'down' depending on the exercise. In this way, you will no longer need the click, the verbal signal will be enough to make the dog obey.

Can you clicker train a cat?

A common misconception is that it is not possible to train a cat. The reality is most people do not know how to train a cat. Not all training techniques are suitable for cats. However, positive education and thus clicker training for cats give very good results.

Beware, however, that some cats can be sensitive to sound. The noise of the classic cat clicker can frighten them. It is then possible to buy a soft clicker, with a softer sound specially designed for kittens or sensitive cats.

Cat-specific training techniques

The methods of clicker training for cats are much the same as for dogs, although luring and targeting are still preferred. The cat being by definition more independent than the dog, it will be more complicated to practice the catching method. Even so, the cat may adopt a suitable behaviour, in which case you should not hesitate to use the cat clicker to indicate its correct behaviour. For example, if it spontaneously goes to claw on its cat tree instead of the sofa.

As with the dog, the ideal situation is to carry out training exercises with a cat in a room where it cannot be distracted. Sessions should be short and spread out over the day, of the order of 5 or 10 minutes at most, so as not to risk tiring the cat. If the cat doesn't seem interested, licks itself or simply walks away, don't insist and postpone the training session. Of course, the treats your cat prefers should be used to get its attention more easily.

What are the limits of clicker training?

Whether for dogs or cats, clicker training seems to have no real limits, except for the imagination of the owner and that of the pet, which, let's not forget, is a full-fledged player in its education. Dog training seems easier, but the cat's ability to learn should not be underestimated, provided that patience, regularity, and delicious cat treats are required.

Clicker training and GPS collars

What is a GPS collar?

The primary function of a GPS collar is to geolocate your dog or cat in real-time, without distance limits. The GPS collar is linked to the smartphone via an app. While it is pleasant to walk your dog without a leash, it is important for your dog's safety to be able to follow it, locate it and find it easily and quickly if it wanders too far.

Similarly, it is difficult not to let your cat out. The GPS collar offers the possibility of knowing what its favourite routes are, but also of knowing its exact position if it is late in returning. However, the GPS collar also offers lesser-known functions that are very useful in the training of pets.

What is the role of GPS collars in training?

In addition to its usefulness when pets run away or find a lost cat or dog, the GPS collar also uses the recall function. This very practical function is based on conditioning and works on the same principle as the clicker.

The purpose of training is still to live with a trained pet that obeys even without the intervention of a clicker. It is quite possible that the GPS collar will take over from the clicker in the training of the pet. Dogs and cats used to the clicker will be more receptive. It will be all the easier to condition them with the GPS collar.

All you have to do is vibrate the collar from the smartphone app at feeding time. With repeated use, dogs and cats will quickly associate the vibration or ringing of their collar with their food. If they run away or are slow to return, simply vibrate their collar and they will come home by themselves. And with the "real-time pet tracking" feature, the owner can see immediately if the recall is working.

Dog and cat owners are becoming increasingly aware of their pet's well-being and are also more concerned about maintaining their relationship and trust with their pet. As a result, positive dog or cat training has been taking precedence over coercive training for several years now. And for good reason! When dog or cat owners search on the Internet for "How to train your dog" or "How to make your dog come back", clicker training is largely represented in the search results at the expense of the electric training collar.

Encouraged by the tutorials that are flourishing on the Internet, more and more owners are trying the method with their dogs but also with their cats. Because clicker training can actually achieve excellent results in terms of education while preserving the integrity of pets and thus the owners' peace of mind.

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