Clicker Training Basics

Clicker Training basics are the next step in your training plan, now that you have chosen Clicker Training as your training concept of choice for you and your dog, understanding the basics will get you started off right!

Clicker training in practice is very easy, as long as you are familiar with all of the steps mentioned in the previous pages;

I’ve seen many dog owners throughout my career that end up only “experimenting” with the clicker simply because they skipped the knowledge behind it and didn’t get started with the clicker training basics. Sooner or later they draw their own conclusion that “this approach doesn’t work”. It does work, however, it is like making a good meal; you can’t skip out on the main ingredients.

Before moving forward with clicker training, please make sure that you have covered each of the clicker training basics mentioned on the previous pages (listed above).

When dealing with dogs, there are basically two approaches;

  • Either we “explain” to our dog what we expect from him by luring or physically manipulating his body posture
  • or we are “encouraging” our dog to clue into the exercise by “guiding” him through the exercise and rewarding each step that he offers towards the final goal.

In the first group we have “Luring”, and in the second group we have what is commonly known as “free shaping”.

Clicker Training Basics: Luring

The Luring concept in dog training is used anywhere from the first steps in which we lure our dog to simply follow us all the way to more complicated exercises in which luring becomes a real art form. Is luring easy? It may look so; however there are a few key components that you have to pay attention to in order to gain the benefits from this type of training and these will be covered below.

Luring tools

The most common tools are a target stick or simply your hand. You can however, use various different tools as well. Whatever you decide to use the concept is the same. Dogs learn to follow it in some way, or it can be used as a stationary point where a dog learns to stop and maybe perform some action (there is more information about this in the targeting section below).

Hand Luring

Hand luring is probably the first step that most dog owners use with their dogs. They simply take a treat and let their dog follow them. The next step is “targeting” the hand. You offer the hand at your side, and as soon as the dog goes towards it, you “mark” that gesture and reward your dog by using the other hand. It is better to use the other hand to deliver a reward as this clearly indicates to the dog the difference between following the treat and touching (later following) the “target” hand in order to get rewarded.

By using the hand (either as a target, or simple by luring with the treat in it), you can train pretty much any dog’s position relative to your body like sit, down, heel, finishing positions, etc.

Clicker Training Basics: Target stick

This is a great tool that is unfortunately not used as often as it could be by dog owners and trainers alike. It is a simple extension of your hand and can be used in various different ways, as a luring tool, or as a targeting tool. It is easy to train the target stick. There are a few ways to do this:

First way:

Start with your hand. Simply offer your hand (fist closed, with only the index and middle fingers stretched out) and as soon as your dog moves towards the hand click and treat. Or if your dog goes all the way, click and treat for nose contact. Once your dog is fluent, then you can put the stick into your hand and repeat the process but this time the dog has to touch the stick instead of your hand, once he gets fluent you can add in a verbal cue like “touch” (or whatever you want to call it).

Now you can start moving the stick slightly and have your dog follow it, once he starts following it, mark that behavior (click or verbal marker) and reward your dog. From this point on, start increasing the duration of the exercise; for example, increase the distance so that your dog has to actually follow the target stick a little ways, etc.

Second way:

Some dogs are more curious than others and more interested in new things, so you can choose the target stick as one of your first clicker training exercises. Simply take the target stick in your hand, and reward your dog for every movement towards the stick (turning the head towards it, moving a step towards it, etc.). Click/mark all of these small steps and reward them individually, then keep gradually demanding more, or if your dog goes straight towards the target stick, click and treat for the nose contact.

Once you have this fluent, just do the same exercises as mentioned above, increase duration, distance, level of difficulty, etc.

Third way:

Some dogs may have small issues at the start. For example, older dogs that have never “worked” on anything before, or overexcited dogs, that is perhaps overly focused on something (like your hands), or they are so impatient because treats are involved that they have issues controlling their impulses.

Since the target stick concept is one of the first clicker training exercises, the majority of dogs still don’t yet have the proper knowledge of the concept cue →behaviour → marker → reward. So in order to get things moving, you can “help” them. Once they know how the clicker/marker training language works (you have charged /loaded the clicker), put a little peanut butter or a pâté spread to the end of the target stick and offer it to your dog (put it close to your dog so that he can smell it), do this for three repetitions or so. Afterwards, as soon as you present the stick to your dog, he will go straight for it. Once he is doing that, stop putting the “bait” on the stick, instead, when he goes for it, click and treat. Soon he will realize that touching the stick is the rewarding part of the exercise.

From this point on, you can increase the levels of the exercise as mentioned above.

The uses of the target stick

There are so many different ways that you can use the target stick that it is impossible to mention them all here. You can use the target stick to train your dog different sports, like obedience (finishing positions, heeling, send away exercises, sit or drop on recall, go out exercises, etc.), agility (the commonly used “touchpad” tool is trained on the same principles, or a target stick to train the obstacles), etc.

On a daily basis you can also use it in many different ways; loose leash walking, target the different positions in the rooms where you want your dog to have his designated area. Train the dog to go to his bed or to a certain place when the door bell rings, etc.

Clicker Training Basics: Phasing out luring and the target stick

Always keep in mind that the purpose of luring and the target stick is to help guide your dog towards the final result. Our goal is to remove these tools as soon as possible. If you are depending on it too much for a particular exercise, your dog may take the luring or the target stick as part of the exercise itself and you will have difficulties phasing it out when needed.

Remove any of the helping tools from the exercise as soon as possible to avoid the dog’s potential over- dependence on them.

Clicker Training Basics: Free shaping

Free shaping is an art for itself. This is a type of clicker training technique in which we offer the least help to our dog. In general, we don’t use luring or any external help, other than arranging the environment in such a way as to guide the dog in the right direction. For example, if the goal of the exercise is for the dog to get into a box, then we would either; remove all other items from the floor and leave only the box, or the box would be closer than the other items, or more “visible” to the dog.

In theory, free shaping is an easy concept. You are simply marking and rewarding your dog for any behavior that leads towards your goal. For example, if your goal was to get your dog into the box in the middle of the room, you would start rewarding every step towards that goal:

  • your dog turning to face the box
  • movement towards the box
  • every step closer to the box
  • investigating the box
  • touching the box with his paw, etc.

This is just an example, how many actual steps would be included in this exercise depends on how the situation develops.

Your job as a handler is not so easy. Free shaping requires a good knowledge and use of clicker training principles:

  • Good planning (for more details about this, please see the raising criteria part of the website). You need to have a blueprint of the approximate steps towards the final product. Often dogs tend to clue into some of the steps relatively fast, and it is important to always keep one step ahead of them in order to keep them on track towards the goal.
  • Timing is one of the key ingredients, no matter how good you organize the rest of the dog training, the whole purpose of using the clicker in clicker training is to pinpoint that “perfect” moment of desired behavior to our dog. It is not as easy as it may seem, and in fact it requires training. There are some exercises described in the Charging/loading the clicker page that may help you improve your timing. On top of this, the placement of the reward plays an important role as well, which can also be found on that same page.
  • Understanding your dog’s abilities and body language is also very important. The first free shaping exercises that you will try when you start your clicker training will be simple ones. The more you practice with your dog, the more his problem-solving abilities will improve, and the more you will be able to ask of him.

Having too high of an expectation and taking steps bigger than the dog is capable of solving may lead to frustration (as he is unable to clue into the next step in order to produce the reward). In the end, you will end up with a dog that will learn to quit as soon as he hits a problem, or he may even start avoiding the work altogether. It is very important to read the dog’s body language and to keep the whole training within his reach, so that things progress successfully.

Clicker Training Basics: Luring vs Free Shaping

There are many debates as to which method is the “better” one, of the two. Often, luring-oriented dog trainers comment that by depending only on free shaping, it takes way too long for a dog to learn some exercises and than if the dog encounters issues during the process, they tend to get even more confused when their handlers try to help, as they have never properly learned the luring principles.

On the other hand, free shaping-oriented dog trainers tend to argue that luring-trained dogs are limited and dependent on their handlers, on physical luring or other tools. Their “problem-solving” abilities are low, and often, there are issues when trying to phase out the luring signals, which can add unnecessary complications to the training.

In a nutshell both groups are right, however dog training is not a religion and it is not always a question of who is right and who is wrong. Yes, if you are going surpassing your dog’s abilities by inappropriately scheduling the exercise level (criteria), you will face issues. On the other hand, it may take forever to train some exercises by using free shaping techniques alone, and that time can be dramatically reduced with the use of luring.

I think that dogs shouldn’t be limited to one or the other. There are places for both styles, and if your dog is familiar with both styles it can only benefit him and you. Knowing which technique to use and when comes down to a few simple questions:

  • What exercises are you planning to train?
  • How much time are you planning to invest?
  • What is your level of knowledge, and your dog’s ability?

Now that you are familiar with the tools and clicker training basics, it’s time to move beyond the basics .

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