One of the best methods for positive reinforcement in puppy training today, is the “clicker” method. It’s effectiveness is primarily due to the simplicity of the method. A simple hand held clicker is used to reinforce a trained behavior at the moment the animal gets it right. Clicker training is considered a secondary reinforcement, to be used in conjunction with food, or treat training.
Initially, the trainer needs to get the animal to associate the clicking noise, with treats, or food. This is best done by giving the treat immediately following the clicker. As time goes by, the puppy will being to associate the clicking sound with the food, something they enjoy. This will allow trainers to get the animal through a series of paces, with a treat at the end of the sequence, instead of breaking up the puppy’s attention with treats.
Over time, the clicker can be used to simply mark the correct behavior. The more this happens, the more the dog begins to receive positive reinforcement from the clicker itself. There are several ways to engage in this process.
For puppies first starting out, trainers often wait for the pup to exhibit the desired behavior, such as sitting. When the trainer see the puppy sit, a natural action for canines, the clicker is used to signal that the “sit” was a good thing, treats should follow immediately.
To establish more advanced behaviors, trainers often break the behavior into smaller steps, using the clicker to signal success at each step in the process. This allows young dogs to experience success, and helps trainers to celebrate their progress regularly. It also keeps the youngest dogs interested, with a steady stream of treats.
When the desired behavior requires movement from one spot to another, using treats to “lure” the dog in the right direction is a great way to start. Following up with the clicker, will give the dog encouragement and reinforce the sound as its own reward.
Once you’ve managed to establish the desired behavior, the final step is adding a hand signal, sound, or word to “name” the behavior, so that the animal will be able to repeat it “on command”. Trainers continue reinforcing successful completion with the clicker and treats to solidify the training. Once an animal has fully learned a behavior, they should be able to complete it, on command, without the clicker, or accompanying treat.
The biggest key to successful clicker training is timing. Engaging the clicker at the exact moment the animal successfully completes the desired task will cue them into the posture and movements being asked for. Using the clicker creates a “bridge” for your animal, connecting the desired behavior, with the reward that follows. The dog learns to not only give the desired response, but wants to do so, because a reward is waiting for their successful completion.
Over time, both treats and clicker can be phased out for mastered tasks and behaviors. It is then a simple matter, once the protocol is established with the animal, to use it to train almost any behavior quickly and effectively.