Puppy and Dog Clicker Mechanics
Remember when? Do you remember when you learned to tie your shoes? Maybe that’s too far back and the details are fuzzy. How about when you learned to type? I remember that well. It was during my freshman year of high school, the first period of the day, bright and early. My fingers were still asleep! As I clicked away at the IBM Selectric typewriter, it seemed so awkward. But as I practiced each day, I became more and more comfortable and my skill improved. By the end of the semester I was typing over 50 words per minute.
Tying your shoes and typing are both examples of physical (mechanical) skills that improve with practice. The clicker training process involves several physical skills, too—keeping your hands and body still as you observe the dog, marking the behavior with a “click,” and delivering a reinforce (treat) to the dog. These skills, plus a few other elements, are known collectively as “clicker mechanical skills,” or simply “clicker mechanics.” Other elements of clicker mechanics include: knowing the behavior you want to click, observing the dog until you see the behavior you wish to mark, and knowing when to click (timing).
It sounds like a lot to learn, but these skills really overlap. For example, once you’ve developed your observation skills, you’ll know when to click—it comes naturally. And by training your body to remain still during a training session, you become skilled very quickly at delivering your reinforcement as a separate action distinct from the click—click and then treat. The click and the treat actions are sequential, and don’t overlap.
The wonderful thing about clicker mechanics is that they continue to improve with practice. This is true whether you are a new clicker trainer, or have years of experience.
When I first began clicker training, it was a lot like learning to type: I was a little clumsy, and my timing wasn’t quite right. I tended to reach for the treat at the same time I was clicking. It was awkward; I felt embarrassed if someone was watching me. But just as I practiced and improved my typing skills, I practiced and improved my clicker mechanical skills. And as I became comfortable, my confidence improved, too.
The wonderful thing about clicker mechanics is that they continue to improve with practice.
Clicker Training for Dogs in Metro Detroit
The importance of clicker mechanics for Puppies and Dogs
Why are clicker mechanics so important for dogs? The “click” marks the behavior, giving your dog information—”Yes, that is the behavior.” The reinforcement (a piece of food, play with a toy) comes after the click. The dog quickly learns that the behavior he was doing when he heard the click will be reinforced. And, because of your well- timed click, he knows precisely which behavior to repeat to earn additional clicks and treats. Practicing mechanical skills, you become skilled at delivering a clear and precise message. In this way, the dog understands the information in the click, rather than having the message diluted or blocked by extraneous movements or clumsy treat delivery.
Try it—without your dog Are you ready to practice your mechanical skills? In these practice sessions you’ll complete exercises that don’t involve an dog, allowing you to get comfortable with the mechanics of clicker training first, and then approach a training session with your dog with confidence. In fact, I recommend that you do these exercises without your dog even present. Why?
If your dog already knows about the clicker, he will be looking for a reward after the click. If your dog does not know about the clicker, you want to introduce it at a time when you can pair the click with a reinforcer. So it’s best to leave the dog out of the equation for the moment.
Step by Step Clicker Training Guide:
Step 1 — Practice Clicking the Clicker
Begin by simply clicking the clicker. Switch hands and click some more. Change the position of the clicker in your hand and click some more. How does it feel? Is there one hand where the clicker feels more comfortable? For most people, the dominant hand feels more comfortable at first, but with practice both hands can begin to feel comfortable.
Ready to add another step?
Step 2 — Keep Your Body Still
Keeping your body still during training is an element of clicker mechanics. The delivery of the reinforcement (a food treat, for example) is a distinct, separate action from the click. Why is this so important? Imagine you are training your dog. If you click the clicker at the same time you are moving your hand to deliver a piece of food, which do you think your dog will notice, the sound of the click or the movement (and smell) of the food? In most cases, the movement of the “treat hand,” the one reaching for or delivering the food, will be the dog’s focal point. The sound of the click—and information you intended to convey with the click—will be diluted or blocked altogether.
To practice keeping your body still, repeat Step 1 above. This time hold your hands still at your sides (which I call “hands at home”) or in your lap as you click. Even the hand (or other body part) clicking the clicker should be as still as possible. Sometimes the instinct is to point the clicker at the dog or move it to emphasize, “I’m clicking,” but this movement is not necessary and can distract the dog. Strive to keep your body as still as possible, so that the message of the click is clear. Practice this step for a few repetitions, and then move on to Step 3.
The delivery of the reinforcement (a food treat, for example) is a distinct, separate action from the click.
Step 3 — Practice Clicking a Specific Behavior
For this step you can recruit a friend, or you can use our old friend, the television. If you work with a human partner, decide in advance on a single behavior to click. For example, you can click when your friend lifts two fingers, like a peace sign. If she raises one finger or three fingers, you don’t click, but the instant she raises two fingers, you click. As another example, have your partner bounce a ball. Click the instant the ball touches the ground. Or, click when the ball reaches the apex of the bounce. Be creative—what other “clickable behaviors” can your friend do?
If you’re working with the television, try clicking each time an actor turns his head, or click when the camera angle changes. If the show has a lot of close-ups, click when an actor blinks.
After a few practices, stop to evaluate. How do you feel? Did you remember to keep your hands and body still? It might have felt challenging at first, but it likely became easier as you practiced.
Guess what? When you reach this step, you will have also begun to develop some keen observational skills. Your skills of observation will help you know exactly when to click when you work with a dog on a specific behavior.
The possibilities for practicing clicker timing are endless—have fun with it. When you’re feeling comfortable with the mechanics of marking behavior, move on to the next part, which is the delivery of the reinforcer.
Practice delivering the reinforcer By the time you begin this step, you will probably feel pretty comfortable with several skills and elements of clicker mechanics: observing the dog, clicking when you see the behavior, and keeping your body still throughout the process. With these skills in place, it’s time to practice delivering the reinforcement.
Step 4 — Practice Delivering a Treat
When I’m first training a new behavior with my dog, I usually reinforce with a food treat she really enjoys. I choose something that’s small, and easy to chew and swallow. I want her to be able to eat the treat quickly and be ready to try again. In this step you are still practicing without the dog, though, so work with dry beans or something similar. (You’ll also need a cup or something similar to place the beans in as you “deliver” them.) Count out 10 “treats” (beans). Hold them in your hand or in a bait bag. For the first part of this exercise, you’ll just be delivering the reinforcer, without clicking first. We’ll add the click back later.
Consider the delivery of all 10 treats as one session. Begin your session with your hands at your sides (“hands at home”) or in your lap, and then move one treat to the cup. Move your hands back to your sides, and then deliver another treat to the cup. Complete the session, delivering all 10 treats, one at a time, to the cup. Repeat for several sessions.
Try alternating hands; delivering treats with your non-dominant hands takes more practice. When you’re feeling comfortable keeping your hands still and delivering one treat at a time, get your clicker ready. It’s time to put the steps together.
Step 5 — Putting It All Together
For this step you’ll need your clicker, 10 beans or treats, and the cup. You’ll also use a friend or the television as you have before.
Here’s the plan: Keep your body still, hands at your sides or in your lap, with your clicker and treats at the ready. Watch for the chosen behavior, click when you observe the behavior, then deliver a treat to the cup.
Make sure you are only clicking for the one single behavior you have picked ahead of time. It might be helpful to write it down, so that you can glance over at your note if you need to remember. Do this for the ten “treats” you have.
Now add the dog! When you have completed the exercises, and practiced clicker mechanical skills to your own level of comfort, it’s time to put that assurance and ability to work with your dog. Mastering clicker mechanics gives you the confidence to begin training sessions with your own dog.
Before each training session, and before you get your dog involved, take time to prepare. Gather your clicker and treats, decide on the behavior to click, and mentally review the skills and other elements of clicker mechanics. Invite your dog to join in as you start training a new behavior that is important or exciting to you. Be sure to have fun together!