Get Started With Clicker Training

Stacy Braslau-Schneck, MA

So, you got a clicker, and you’re ready to try out a new and exciting way of training your dog. These tips will help you get started on your own. (To find an instructor near you, click here)

Step 1. "Charge up" your clicker

Click the clicker once (in-out) and give your dog a treat (press on the end of the metal tab that does not have the dimple).

Hint: Use something your dog really likes at first. Small pieces of yummy food (dog cookies, hot dogs, cheese) are best because the dog can enjoy it and be ready for the next thing quickly.

Repeat this until your dog reacts to the clicker (by startling, pricking her ears, or suddenly looking for the treat). If she does, you’re ready for the next step...

Hint: Try to keep your timing random (1-5 seconds between one click-and-treat time and the next).

Tehcnical Note: This is called "establishing a secondary reinforcer" but most people call it "charging up the clicker"!

Remember, click first, then treat.

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Step 2. Three ways to train: Capturing, Luring, or Shaping Behaviors

Capturing a Behavior

Wait for your dog to do something you like. It can be anything: lifting one paw, a "sit", touching your hand with her nose, even looking at you (for a distracted dog) or standing with all four feet on the ground (for a dog that likes to jump up).

When you see it, click the clicker during the behavior and give the dog the treat.

Hint: If your dog is too distracted to notice that you’re giving her a treat, go back to "Charging up your clicker".

Every time your dog does the behavior again, click and treat.

Hint: Timing is important. Think of the clicker as a camera that marks the instant the dog’s doing the right thing.

Note: Don’t bother saying the name of the behavior at this point. Dogs learn through association, and you want them to associate the cue (or command) with the complete, proper, and prompt action. Besides, you might distract your dog or yourself!


Luring a Behavior

Hold a treat in front of your dog’s nose. She’ll probably try to lick it, but don’t let her eat it yet. You can use it as a "nose magnet," since she’ll probably follow it everywhere. You can "lure" or "guide" her into a position you want her to learn. For example, you can lure a "sit" by slowly moving the treat from her nose back towards the top of her head (keep it low, so she won’t jump up).

As soon as she is in the position you want, click the clicker and give her the treat in your hand.


Shaping a Behavior

This is sort of an advanced form of "capturing". You start by clicking & treating the barest hint of the behavior you want to end up with, and then concentrate on taking small steps closer to your goal.

For example, you might click & treat every time your dog turns her head to the left. Soon she’ll be doing it more and more. Then you only click & treat when she’s turned it further. Then only when she turns it far and takes a step towards the left. Then a head turn and two steps, then three. Eventually you will get her to turn in a complete circle, and will only be clicking & treating for that. Then you wait for her to do two circles, and click&treat. Then only click&treat the faster ones. Eventually, you will have "shaped" a spin.

3. Add a Cue Word

When your dog is doing this trick reliably, to the point where you can predict when she’s about to do it, start adding a cue.

For example, if you know she’s about to sit, say "Sit". If you know she’s about to lift her paw, say "Wave!".

Match this cue with this behavior many times.

Hint: dogs don’t know what "commands" are. But your dog will learn that if she does this trick when she hears this cue, she’ll get a reward.

Warning: if you get in the habit of repeating the cues, your dog will think the cue is "Sit-sit-sit", and she’ll always wait for you to say it three times before responding!


4. Test the Cue

Try saying the cue word. If your dog does the trick, click and give her a "jackpot" — a whole bunch of really good treats!

Hint: Whenever you really like something your dog does, identify it with one click and reward it with more or better treats.

If she doesn’t do the trick when you say the cue word, you were a little early. Work on Step 2 (Getting the behavior) for a while longer.


5. Ignore Un-Cued Behaviors

When she’s reliably doing her trick when you say the cue, stop clicking-and-treating her for doing it at other times. Just ignore these "spontaneous" behaviors. Continue to click-and-treat when she does it when you cue.

Note 1: You might find that your dog starts doing this trick a lot right after you stop rewarding her. This is normal. It’s called an "extinction burst". (You probably do the same thing when a button stops working. Instead of trying something else, you just push the button several times, harder, before you give up!).

Note 2: Capturing is a good way to control unwanted behaviors, like barking or jumping up on you. But be ready for the "Extinction Burst" (see Note 1). To keep unwanted behaviors under control, it’s good to give the cue and reward the behavior every once in a while — have a little barking or jumping session!

6. Become a Variable Reward Giver

Now try to get your dog to do 2 or 3 repetitions of the trick before you click and treat it

Hint: it’s still a good idea to say "Good dog!" each time, just to let the dog know she's getting it right.

This is called "putting the behavior on a variable reinforcement schedule". The dog doesn’t know when she’ll get the big reward, so she keeps trying — just like people playing at slot machines or the lottery.

Important: Since you’re rewarding less often, you can also get picky — only reward the straightest sits or the highest paw-lifts. This is where behaviors get perfected. Note: Some people prefer to perfect the behavior before they add the cue.

7. Generalize It

Now teach your dog that this cue will work everywhere. Move to different locations in your house and try it. Go outside and try it. Try it with the leash on, and with it off. Try it in the car, in the park, and at the vet’s.

Hint: You may need to go back a few steps, maybe even back to Step 2, if the distraction levels are too high.

Hint: you’ll want to make the rewards big for each new accomplishment.

Your dog will "generalize" the behavior, and she’ll learn that it’s the cue word that’s important, not the fact that she’s in the kitchen or it’s just before dinner or the leash is on.


There you have it!
Your pet has learned a new trick,
and you’ve learned a whole new way to train!

This information was originally prepared for the San Francisco SPCA's training department. Copyright Stacy Braslau-Schneck, 1998.

For more information and links, return to Stacy's Clicker Page,
An Animal Trainer's Introduction to Operant Conditioning