Clicker Training

How To Clicker Train A Dog In 5 Easy Steps

Written By Sharon Elber | B.A Mathematics, M.A Science & Technology, Professional Dog Trainer.
Edited & Fact Checked By Renae Soppe | B.A Journalism & Science. 
Last Updated: 15th January 2024.

Clicker training dogs is easy and offers the fastest way to help your dog learn. Whether you want to curb problem behaviours, teach a few fun tricks, or train your dog for competition, clicker training is the way to go.

This guide offers a few of the basics that you will need to learn before starting your clicker training journey with your pup.

What is Clicker Training?

Clicker training has its roots in the work of animal behaviourists who wanted to apply the principles of operant conditioning to train marine animals over thirty years ago. With the help of several visionaries including Karen Pryor, Gary Wilkes, Gary Priest, and Ingrid Kang Shallenberger, clicker training dogs has created a complete revolution in canine training.

In the most basic sense, clicker training for dogs is a technique that focuses on the power of associating the sound of the click with a reward, offering the trainer the ability to be very accurate about what behaviour they are rewarding.

Related: Best Dog Training Books

Once you and your dog learn the basics of this technique, you will find that it produces amazing results whether you are training fancy tricks or everyday basic manners.

A bonus of this training technique is that it builds a bond of trust between you and your furry friend. It also helps to keep your dog motivated to learn more because training sessions are full of good things. Finally, using this style of training creates a kind of game that you and your dog will play together to keep training fun and effective for both you and your canine companion.

The Basics Of Clicker Training For Dogs:

  • Marker: The sound of the click is used to mark the exact behaviour that you want to increase during your training session. The clicker is also known as the marker.
  • Criteria: Set by the trainer and often adjusted as training progresses, the criteria is the behaviour the trainer is looking for to mark and reward during training. For example, when first training a sit, the trainer may set the criteria as the dog’s bottom hits the ground for a second. However, as training progresses, the criteria will go up to the dog keeping their bottom on the ground for 2 to 3 seconds, then 5 to 10 seconds, then a minute, etc.
  • Reward or Motivator: Reward is something that your dog loves and is always given immediately after the click sound, even if the click sound was made in error. It is sometimes referred to as a motivator. This associates the click sound with the reward and teaches your dog to repeat the behaviour they were doing the moment they heard the click sound.

Most professional dog trainers use food as a reward because it can be quickly repeated during a training session. Note that for dogs that are highly food motivated, you can use their regular kibble rations for training purposes and avoid high calorie treats which can cause weight gain.

Other rewards may include something else that your dog loves that can be repeated often such as a toss of the ball, praise, or pets. However, these motivators are generally not as effective as food.

  • High Value Reward: While many food motivated dogs will work for kibble, sometimes trainers use a higher value food reward such as small bits of cheese or cooked meat for extra motivation when the distraction levels are high or when training a particularly challenging behaviour.
  • Fading the Reward: It is a myth that dogs trained with a clicker are always dependent on food rewards to do tricks or behaviours. In fact, once a dog has learned and perfected a behaviour the reward is faded using a variety of techniques such as behaviour chaining, randomising reward, and raising the criteria threshold.
  • Rate of Reward: This is simply how often you reward your dog over time during a training session. Pro dog trainers know that the faster the rate of reward, the faster a dog will learn. Adjusting the rate of reward is something that the trainer does by setting the criteria low enough that the dog is successful as often as every 3 to 10 seconds, especially when training a new behaviour.

How To Use A Clicker To Train A Dog

STEP 1: Charge the Clicker

The first step to using a clicker to train your dog is to begin to associate the sound of the click with a reward. Just hang out with your dog and click then reward at least 10 to 20 times.

STEP 2: Set a Criteria

Every training session should start with the trainer setting the criteria low enough that the dog is likely to be successful at achieving it often. For example, if you are training the command “Heel”, the initial criteria may simply be every time your dog comes up to your left side for even a second as you walk around.

Note that over a training session, you as the trainer will raise the criteria at a pace that keeps your dog successful so that you can maintain a high rate of reward.

STEP 3: Raise the Criteria

Now you are marking and rewarding only after waiting for a bit more from your dog. Using the case of the Heel command, you only mark and reward after your dog takes two steps in the heel position.

Sometimes during training, you will need to go back to the previous criteria. Remember, you know you have set the right criteria when your dog is successful and you have a high rate of reward.

STEP 4: Add the Command or Cue

One of the secrets of clicker training like a pro is to learn when to add the voice command. Rather than starting off with the command before your dog knows what to do, wait until they are already doing the basics of the behaviour reliably, even if the duration is short, before adding the voice command.

STEP 5: Add Distance, Duration, and Distraction

Once your dog has mastered the basics of a command in a low distraction environment, you can start to add what is known as the three D’s: Distance, Duration, and Distraction.

Basically, this means working on the command from further away from your dog, waiting longer to mark and reward, and asking for the behaviour around distractions such as near other dogs or around other people.

Note that just like your initial training, you need to be able to notice when your rate of reward is slipping and your dog is unable to meet the criteria often enough. Set your dog up for success by lowering the criteria again and progress more slowly with the three D’s.

If you want to learn more about clicker training dogs, stay tuned as we will be offering more in depth guides here. In the meantime, you may want to check out one of the best books on the subject,  Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor.

Dog Training Clickers

When it comes to finding the best dog clicker, you have a lot of options. Most dog clickers for training are inexpensive and easy to use. The following guide will help you learn a bit more about the options on the market and how to pick the best training tool for your pooch.

HoAoOo Pet Training Clicker with Wrist Strap

HoAoOo Pet Training Clicker with Wrist Strap

To get started with canine clicker training, all you really must have is the clicker for dog training. We recommend this product for an inexpensive yet durable option with the most important features covered.

This clicker works with a simple metal tab placed under the large button that makes a loud and clear sound to accurately mark the correct behaviour you are looking for when training. Because it works on this simple principle with no other moving parts, it is going to last and tolerate any weather conditions.

It also features a wrist strap which is a must have as it will allow you to free up your clicking hand when needed during training without losing track of where you set it down.

Company of Animals Clix Multi-Clicker Training Tool for Dogs

Company of Animals Clix Multi-Clicker Training Tool for Dogs

If your dog tends to be sensitive to loud noises, then you may find the loud click of a traditional clicker may be alarming to your pooch. This can work against your training efforts since the goal of this training technique is to associate the sound of the click with a reward, not fear.

This clicker is designed to work with noise sensitive dogs by giving you the power to adjust it to a softer sound which still works to accurately mark the correct behaviour without activating your dog’s fear of loud noises. And, once your dog gets more used to clicker training, you can adjust the sound to louder for effective use when training from a distance.

Clicker Training All-In-One Kit by Lanney

Another piece of equipment that is very helpful to have for any clicker training session is a treat pouch that gives you hands free access to your dog’s food motivators while training. If you do not already have one, consider this kit which includes a very well designed treat pouch, a clicker, and some other goodies to make your training sessions go smoothly.

This treat pouch has a few features that we think makes it stand out. It can be worn around the waist or over the shoulder. The treat bag has a large capacity which is especially helpful for longer training sessions. It also has a mesh pouch in the front which is great for stashing small items such as your clicker, phone, keys or other small items to keep your hands free. 

Is Clicker Training Right For Your Dog?

All dogs can benefit from clicker training because associating a reward with a sound, a key technique of operant conditioning, is foundational to how animals learn. In fact, even puppy clicker training is a great way to get young dogs started with foundation manners such as coming when called, sitting, learning to wait for their food, and other basic manners.

Related: When To Start Training Your Puppy?

We hope this guide to the basics of clicker training has given you enough food for thought to give this revolutionary and humane method of training a try. Stay tuned for more in depth articles on how to succeed with this easy method to build a great relationship with your dog and help them learn everything from basic manners to fancy tricks.

Sharon Elber

Sharon Elber is Gentle Dog Trainers Professional Dog Trainer (she prefers to think of it as training people to communicate with their dogs effectively).

She also works as an assistant manager at a doggy daycare facility, and assistant trainer on a canine Flyball team.

Sharon has been a dog lover her entire life and has spent much of the last 20 years developing her expertise working with her own dogs Tango Bango and Fuzzy Beans.

She received her Masters in Science & Technology Studies from Virginia Tech in 2008. Her academic background enables her to weed through the latest research to provide up-to-date and accurate analysis of the latest in pet health, behaviour, training and products.

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