Charging the clicker or marker

Charging the clicker is the first step that we need to take, before getting started. Before we do anything with clicker training exercises, we need to explain to the dog what the clicker is. The way that we do this is called, charging or loading the clicker (or marker).

First step: Charging the Marker or Loading the Clicker

We call this the ‘teaching the meaning’ stage, charging the clicker or marker. It is a simple procedure. With the use of classical conditioning, you will train your dog for the clicker or marker that you choose. This means that we will pair something that is meaningless to our dog (like the click from a clicker or the marker word), with something that has meaning (like food for example).

The easiest way to do this is to put a bowl or a dish with treats on the counter beside you, then get your dog’s attention, and then simply click and treat, or say your marker (for example “click”) and treat. Continue charging the clicker this way for at least 20-30 repetitions. You can repeat this step for example twice a day for a couple of days. After two days of charging the clicker, test your dog.

Test this in another location away from where you normally train, preferably, and without presenting treats to your dog, (instead have just a few of them in your pocket without your dog noticing them). Then, out of the blue, “click”. You will know by your dog’s response if he has connected the marker with the oncoming treat. If he acts excited, he has connected it, if he is hesitant or doesn’t react at all, he still didn’t get it. This is not a problem simply do a few more charging the clicker sessions, before testing again.

A very important detail of classical conditioning is timing. If you present the treat before you give your “click” or verbal cue, or if you give your marker after the dog is already eating the treat, your dog will not make the association between the marker and the reward.

There are a few simple but important rules that you have to follow when charging the clicker:

  • You don’t ask your dog to perform any action like sit, down, etc. when charging the marker. Your dog is simply learning the meaning of the clicker/marker, which is click = reward.
  • Get your dog’s attention (you can whistle or make any sound with your mouth), but don’t call his name for this.
  • Present your marker (a click or the word “click” or whatever your marker is) without any body movement or gestures.
  • Now you can move your body to deliver the reward.
  • There should be a fraction of a second between giving your marker and then moving your hand to reach and deliver the reward.
  • Click or mark only once. Many people have this habit of saying “click, click, click...”, or even to use the clicker multiple times while delivering the reward. The purpose of the clicker/marker is to mark the specific behavior in the moment when it occurs, and only that. By repeating the marker or clicking the clicker, you will face issues when you start more demanding exercises, because your dog won’t understand which behavior he is getting the reward for.

TIP: Always keep in mind to separate the verbal cue (command) or the click from your body movement. This is probably one of the most important things in dog training. If you are overlapping your verbal cues with your body language, your dog will have difficulties and will probably never learn the verbal commands without the body gesture cues.

The use of body language

Separating the verbal command from any physical gestures is important for charging the clicker, and also throughout training. I know this sounds easy, but our body gestures naturally go with our voice, so it may be difficult to coordinate this. When clicker training (or marker training) we need to separate these actions for our dog to understand them and learn them properly. I always suggest practicing without your dog present at first, until you are comfortable with this important timing and coordination.

Always keep in mind that as much as our goal is to train our dog certain things, dogs actually don’t grasp that concept, so what they are looking for is the shortest and the easiest way to earn the reward. This is totally natural, and before they understand the idea that in order to earn the reward, they normally have to perform something (“behavior precedes the reward” system), they are observing our every move in order to try and predict the delivery of the reward.

Common Mistakes with body language

This is the part where most people make mistakes. Two of the most common mistakes are:

  • Reaching for the treat before marking the behavior. Many people are almost obsessed in thinking that they have to have the treat in their hand. This is wrong, in fact, you are just distracting your dog. As soon as your dog understands the clicker/marker training language, you are fine; otherwise your dog just keeps focusing on the reward and this adds frustration on both sides and slows down the training process.
  • Overly helping your dog with your body language. For some reason, people tend to over exaggerate their body language signals when trying to speak with other people who speak a foreign language, as if they are trying to compensate for the language barrier. The same thing happens when we speak to our dogs. We tend to try to “help” our dogs understand us by overdoing stuff. For example, we find ourselves bending over slightly when we train our dog to sit. Some people even take a step forward (towards the dog) as a way of attempting to “help” the dog understand what we want, but this is completely unnecessary. The more exaggerated body language you use, the more difficulty you will have when you need to phase them out.

Always remember to keep things simple and to use as little body language, as necessary. Just what is needed to get the job done.

Once we have finished charging the clicker and our dog is conditioned to the marker, and we aren’t making any of the above mistakes, we then have a very powerful tool that will allow us to mark a behavior within a second of it occurring; as well, we also don’t need to have food constantly ready to deliver right that second, which is another powerful tool.

Click than pay

This concept teaches our dog that he needs to “go through us” (he needs to perform what we ask of him) in order to receive a reward. One of the most powerful moments is when the dog realizes that we “always” have the reward available, even when it is not visually present. There are many ways to reach this point.

Most people just hide a few treats in their pockets, to have them on hand without their dog actually seeing them being put there. For example, when you go outside, get your dog’s attention, then mark and reward for the eye contact. Do a few simple tricks and let your dog continue with the daily routine, then again out of the blue, get your dog’s attention and do a few exercises, etc. This will help teach your dog to be responsive because you always have something good, even if not visible. It will also help build the muscle memory for your dog to keep paying attention to you or checking in with you, even when you are not actively working together, because he just never knows when you will decide to start working, but he does know that he doesn’t want to miss that moment.

Once the dog is aware of the fact that we have the reward, with dogs that are just starting the training especially, you will notice that as soon as they notice the presence of the reward (treats are commonly used), they will perform any known behavior from their repertoire in order to get that reward. This is not to be considered a successful training but merely the dog’s effort to “activate you” in order to get the treat. This stage can be considered as a level one training stage where the dog understands the concept of:

Behavior = Reward.

Be careful not to reward your dog for these “bursts”. If the dog already understands the sit command for example, your goal is to make it clear that the reward will only be produced if the behavior has been requested prior to him offering it. This is the next stage, the final stage in which the dog understands that there is a sequence:

Command –>Behavior –> Click (marker) –> Reward.

After charging the clicker, it can be used to communicate what behaviors you want from your dog. Once you have this clear communication with your dog, training will go much smoother and faster.

After the click

A clicker or verbal marker has to be used only once when marking a behavior. In addition to marking the desired behavior, it is also a signal to the dog that the particular exercise or behavior is complete and that he can move (be released) in order to come access his reward. For example, if your dog is sitting, and you give the click, it means that he can release the position, and come to you to get his reward.

As mentioned above, the purpose of using clicker training or marker training is to have a tool that will allow us to mark certain behaviors. For example, if you are training your dog to sit then as soon as his hind end touches the ground, you mark that moment and reward.

Unfortunately, some people use the clicker way too much, which can lead to sloppy and incorrect behaviors or final results from your dog.

A clicker is not to be used to "bribe" your dog or to get his attention when he is doing something. Many dog owners make this mistake. The clicker is a tool to help with shaping your dog’s behaviors and only that, it is not a magic button, a bribe or a summoning device.

Keep in mind, especially if you are clicking for stationary positions and rewarding your dog in that position, that he may connect that clicking with some other part of the behavior or with the objects/actions related to the environment instead.This is why we need to pay attention to the Criteria, Cues and rate of reinforcement when training our dogs

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