Clicker training in a nutshell

This method has obviously gotten its name from the small device, the clicker. However,  you don’t actually need one to train in this way. The basic idea or theory behind clicker training, is operant conditioning, which means simply that we teach the animal that when it does something (that we wish it to do) it gets rewarded. Hence, the method is often also called positive reinforcement training.

There are four types of consequences to a behavior:

1) something good happens or is presented 🙂
2) something good ends or is taken away 😦
3) something bad happens or is presented 😦
4) something bad ends or is taken away 🙂

(1) and (4) are experience as rewards whereas (2) and (3) function as punishments. Hence, it is important to realise that when we talk about punishments in the context of operant conditioning, we don’t only mean things that cause physical pain, discomfort, fear or intimidation.

In clicker training the consequences used most often are (1) and (2). When the animal does something desirable, something good happens, for instance he gets a treat (1). When he fails to do what we want, we remove the possibility of the reward (2).

What about the clicker then?
The clicker in clicker training is used to mark a desired behavior. Contrary to common ideas, it is NOT a reward in itself, but simply something that tells the animal he has done something right and is soon to be rewarded. In order for a clicker to work, the dog must first be conditioned to its sound. Remember the Pavlov’s dog who started salivating when it heard a certain bell ring? That is what will eventually happen to your dog, when he hears the clicker sound (or any other sound or word you choose to use). Basically then, we will teach the dog that the sound of the clicker always means that food is on its way. As I mentioned before, the actual clicker is not necessary, but you can easily use a (short) word such as “good” or “yess”, or even make a clicking sound with your tongue. Any sound is fine as long as it is something that you don’t normally use with the dog.

Conditioning the clicker
This is easy. Simply sit down with your dog, clicker in one hand treats in the other. Start by clicking, and immediately afterwards giving your dog a treat. The dog does not need to do anything, since at this stage we are simply creating a link between the sound and food. Repeat ten times take a little break (half a minute or a minute) and do the same thing again 10 times. Depending on the dog after two or three sessions the dog should have realised that the sound means treats. You can test this at any time, when your dog is not paying particular attention to you. Just click and see if your dog looks at you expecting a treat. If he does, you have succesfully conditioned him to the clicker sound!

Using clicker in your training
Once the conditioning is done, you can start using the clicker in training. As I said earlier the idea behind using a clicker, is to be able to quickly and accurately tell the dog when it is doing what we want it to do. Since us humans are fairly slow in our movements trying to give the dog a treat at the exact moment it’s doing the right thing, would most likely fail. We would miss the right moment by perhaps one or two second and the dog would think that it got rewarded for something it did right after the “right” thing. If we for instance teach the dog to sit. It sits and immediately after would get up. We would most likely be ready with the treat by the time the dog was standing and would end up rewarding it, not for sitting, but for getting up! The clicker allows as to mark the exact moment the dogs rear end touches the ground and this way it speeds to learning process enormously, since the dog does not need to be guessing what it was it got the treat for.

Although clicker is very helpful when teaching new behaviours, it is not necessary anymore, after the dog has learned the behavior. So you do not need to carry a clicker around with you for the rest of  your life. The same is true for the treats. Although in the beginning it is important to keep the treats coming quickly and often, it is equally important to gradually reduce the amounts of treats, replace some of them with praise. Once the dog knows the behavior you should stop rewarding him every time he performs a desired behaviour, and only give the treats randomly. So, unlike people commonly think, you won’t need to pack your pockets full of sausages everytime you take your dog for a walk!

If you want to know more, check out  this post in “Barks & Recreation” -blog, on the most common myths and misunderstandings about and around clicker training.

Brain activities for your dog

Although walkies and physical exercise is important for all dogs, it is not enough to keep them happy, they also need mental activities. Even if you feel you have a hyper active pooch, who is impossible to tire out by running outside, a suitable amount of mental stimulation and problem solving, will tire him out for sure. To keep your dogs mind busy does not need to be hard work and although training is a brilliant way to give your dogs brains the much-needed exercise, there are other ways you can keep her busy.

Food puzzle toys and chews

One option are food toys. These are also great things to give your dog when you have to leave her alone in the house, or in the evening when you want to enjoy a quiet night in front of the TV, without having all the balls carried in your lap by the hopeful pups. Since our dogs’ wild counterparts spend much of their time scavenging for food, food puzzle toys offer a natural solution to pet-dog boredom. Puzzle toys also encourage chewing and licking, which can have a calming effect on dogs.

Food puzzle toys are sturdy containers, that you can use to put food or treats inside but don’t give dogs easy access to the food. Most of them have holes on sides or on ends and the idea is for your dog to figure out how to get the food out. Usually they get it out by shaking, pawing, rolling, nibbling licking or throwing the toy.

You can make food puzzles yourself or buy them from a pet shop or online. There are numerous different toys, but perhaps the most common one is the KONG® Toy, which you can in every pet shop.  Paws Abilities -blog has a great article about KONG and other similar toys, including some great stuffing ideas. Feed your dog at least one meal a day in a food puzzle toy to give her brain and jaws a great workout. You can also stuff these toys with your dog’s favorite treats or a little peanut butter, cottage cheese, cooked oatmeal or yogurt. 

A cheaper alternative is to make your toys yourself. Keep some small cardboard boxes that you get from groceries. Put some treats inside one, roll it up and push it through an empty toilet roll. At first only a rolled up cardboard box might be enough, but once your dog gets the idea you can make the puzzle more difficult, by adding boxes. Another nice food puzzle can be made from an old muffin tray and tennis balls. Put a few treats the muffin tray and put a tennis ball on top of each one to hide them. Then let your dog find the treats by lifting the balls up.

When you first introduce your dog to a food puzzle toy, make it really easy for her to empty it. She’s probably accustomed to getting her food served in a bowl, so she has some learning to do! When using a bought toy, choose one with a large dispensing hole and make sure the goodies you put inside the toy are small enough to come out easily. As your dog becomes an expert, you can make it harder and harder for her to get food out of her toys. Use bigger pieces of food or, to provide an extra challenge, freeze the toys after stuffing them. You can also place the frozen toys inside a cardboard box or oatmeal tub so that your dog has to rip through the cardboard container to get to her meal.

Chew Time

Dogs of all ages need to chew. Both wild and domestic dogs spend hours chewing to keep their jaws strong and their teeth clean. Chewing is also fun, it provides stimulation, relieves anxiety and reduces stress. Try out paddy whacks and hard rubber toys, natural marrow bones, rawhide and pig ears. You can also give your dog raw bones, but you need to introduce them gradually, since they can upset your dogs tummy. NEVER give cooked, cured or smoked bones. Check our these pages about giving your dog real bones. However, there is a lot of controversy about giving dogs real bones, so before you make your decision, it might be a good idea to do some research.

Although chewing behavior is normal, dogs sometimes chew on things we don’t want them to. Giving your dog plenty of her own toys and chewies will help prevent her from gnawing on your things.


Scent is your dogs most powerful sense and most of them absolutely love using it. Keep in mind that nose work is extremely tiring for your dog, so don’t overdo it, especially in the beginning.

Find It!

Giving your dog a chance to use her powerful nose can really wear her out! It’s easy to teach your dog to find hidden treats. Just put her in another room, out of sight, while you hide a few treats on the floor. When you introduce the Find It game, start out by choosing hiding spots that allow your dog to find the “hidden” treats easily. Try placing treats behind the legs of furniture, partly in view. After you’ve hidden the treats, go get your dog and say “Find it!” right before letting her into the room. Encourage her (you probably need to repeat “find it” a few times to keep her going) to look around for the treats. You also might have to point them out the first few times you play this game. As your dog becomes better and better at finding the treats, you can hide them in more difficult places, like behind pillows or underneath objects.

Which one?

You can use small plastic plant pots for this one or small football marker cones (which have a hole on top) that are often used in children’s games. Put few pots on the floor upside down and put a treat under one of them. Show your dog that you’ve got a treat but don’t show her where you put it. Then let your dog go and “Find it!”.

Scent trail

On the walk ask your friend or partner to hold your dog, or leave her on the stay if she masters the command. Walk a few meters away and shuffle around a small square area moving your feet only a few inches at the time. Then place a few treats to the area. Get your dog and point her to the right area and tell her to Find it! Repeat this a few times, so that your dog slowly starts associating your scent with the treats. Then you can start tamping a small distance forward (perhaps half a yard at first) and place treats every two inches. Place a jackpot pile of treats at the end. Position your dog to the beginning and let her work her way to the jackpot. You can increase the distance of the scent trail slowly and little by little increase the space between each treat. It’s a good idea to have the dog on the lead for this one, so she doesn’t wander away. However, you should not drag or even lead your dog to the right direction, but let her do the work herself. If she wanders off gently lead her back to the next treat and cheer her on.

Simple counter conditioning

Counter conditioning is a method that can be used to change unwanted behavior in animals. As the name implies, it means conditioning (or training) the animal to do something contrary, or counter, to the unwanted behavior it normally does in a particular situation. For instance, the dog cannot jump and sit simultaneously. So, if your dog jumps at people when greeting them, you can use counter conditioning to teach him to sit to greet people instead of jumping at them.

You can also use counter conditioning to change an animals feelings about something. If your dog is afraid of other dogs, using counter conditioning, you can teach him that strange dogs always mean that something nice will happen, and hence, he will start to think that strange dogs are nice instead of scary.

Counter conditioning is simple, but that does not mean it is easy, or even a quick fix for your problems. In fact it requires careful planning. First you need to think about your pets behavior and figure out the exact thing that your pets reacts to in a negative way. For instance you might know that your dog is afraid of strange dogs, but in order to start changing his fearful behavior you need to first figure out all the elements that can trigger a fearful reaction from your dog. Those elements might be distance, the sex of the other dog, whether the other dog is on the leash or off the leash, the size of the other dog or even its color. When you have created a clear picture for yourself about what actually makes your dog behave fearfully (or aggressively for that matter) think about putting them in order from the least threatening to the most threatening. For instance, your dog might be perfectly okay with small dogs that are 20 yards away, but it they get closer than 15 yards he starts barking. If your dog is more afraid of large dogs than small dogs, it might be that large dogs trigger reaction already at 50 yards distance.

The idea of counter conditioning is to start the training at the easiest situation, ie. a small dog 25 yards away and gradually, when your dogs behavior gets better, move to the more difficult situations such as small dog at 15 yards away, large dog at 40 yard away, large dog 35 yards away and so on. If your dog is afraid, and you only want to change his feelings about other dogs, the training steps are quite straightforward, and you only need dogs and owners to help you and plenty of your dogs favorite treats.

First, bring the feared thing into sight, and start treating your dog in a steady stream of small pieces of his favorite treats. Second, move the feared thing out of sight and stop the treats as soon as your dog cannot see the feared thing anymore. Rinse and repeat at least 10 times each session. If your dog won’t eat or seems to get agitated you are most likely too close to the feared thing and you should start training from further away.

Once your dog seems comfortable at the distance you decided to start at you can move a little bit closer. Don’t try to get too close too soon! Even one step closer can be a lot for some dogs. Start a new session always at an easier level and do few repetitions at that level before moving on. Never start at the more difficult level than what you ended your last session at.

If at all possible try to avoid exposure to the scary thing between your treatment sessions. The possibility to perform the unwanted behavior will only strengthen it and risks undoing all the good work you have done during your training sessions 😀