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Clicker Training Tips from Karen Pryor

Clicker training is a terrific, science-based way to communicate with your pet. It’s easier to learn than standard command-based training. You can click train any kind of animal, of any age. Puppies love it. Old dogs learn new tricks. You can click-train cats, birds, and other pets as well. Here are some simple tips to get you started with clicker training.

  1. Push and release the springy end of the clicker, making a two-toned click. Then treat. Keep the treats small. Use a delicious treat at first: for a dog or cat, little cubes of roast chicken, not a lump of kibble.
  2. Click DURING the desired behavior, not after it is completed. The timing of the click is crucial. Don’t be dismayed if your pet stops the behavior when it hears the click. The click ends the behavior. Give the treat after that; the timing of the treat is not important.
  3. Click when your dog or other pet does something you like. Begin with something easy that the pet is likely to do on its own. (Ideas: sit; come toward you; touch your hand with its nose; lift a foot; touch and follow a target object such as a pencil or a spoon.)
  4. Click once (in-out.) If you want to express special enthusiasm, increase the number of treats, not the number of clicks.
  5. Keep practice sessions short. Much more is learned in three sessions of five minutes each than in an hour of boring repetition. You can get dramatic results, and teach your pet many new things, by fitting a few clicks a day here and there in your normal routine.
  6. Fix bad behavior by clicker training good behavior. Click the puppy for relieving itself in the proper spot. Click for paws on the ground, not on the visitors. Instead of scolding for making noise, click for silence. Cure leash-pulling by clicking and treating those moments when the leash happens to go slack.
  7. Click for voluntary (or accidental) movements toward your goal. You may coax or lure the animal into a movement or position, but don’t push, pull, or hold it. Let the animal discover how to do the behavior on its own. If you need a leash for safety’s sake, loop it over your shoulder or tie it to your belt.
  8. Don’t wait for the “whole picture” or the perfect behavior. Click and treat for small movements in the right direction. You want the dog to sit, and it starts to crouch in back: click. You want it to come when called, and it takes a few steps your way: click.
  9. Keep raising your goal. As soon as you have a good response-when a dog, for example, is voluntarily lying down, coming toward you, or sitting repeatedly-start asking for more. Wait a few beats, until the dog stays down a little longer, comes a little further, and sits a little faster. Click. This is called “shaping” a behavior.
  10. When your animal has learned to do something for clicks, it will begin showing you the behavior spontaneously, trying to get you to click. Now is the time to begin offering a cue, such as a word or a hand signal. Start clicker training for that behavior if it happens during or after the cue. Start ignoring that behavior when the cue wasn’t given.
  11. Don’t order the animal around; clicker training is not command-based. If your pet does not respond to a cue, it is not disobeying; it just hasn’t learned the cue completely. Find more ways to cue it and click it for the desired behavior. Try working in a quieter, less distracting place for a while. If you have more than one pet, separate them for clicker training, and let them take turns.
  12. Carry a clicker and “catch” cute behaviors like cocking the head, chasing the tail, or holding up one foot. You can click for many different behaviors, whenever you happen to notice them, without confusing your pet.
  13. If you get mad, put the clicker away. Don’t mix scolding, leash-jerking, and correction training with clicker training; you will lose the animal’s confidence in the clicker and perhaps in you.
  14. If you are not making progress with a particular behavior, you are probably clicking too late. Accurate timing is important. Get someone else to watch you, and perhaps to click for you, a few times.
  15. Above all, have fun. Clicker training is a wonderful way to enrich your relationship with any learner.

By Karen Pryor on 04/01/2002

Training a Steadfast Recall

Excerpted from Click for Joy: Questions and Answers from Clicker Trainers and their Dogs by Melissa Alexander, an unparalleled guide to the concepts of clicker training.

A recall can save your dog’s life. It can stop her from running in front of a car, or from chasing an animal into the woods. It can call your dog away from a tempting but dangerous delicacy she has just discovered.

Getting the behavior

Teaching a recall is easy—just reinforce your dog for coming to you! Start by kneeling a few feet away and making happy noises. Click when the pup takes her first step toward you and give her a yummy treat when she gets to you. Run a few feet away and repeat the process. Make it a fun game! When she’s coming to you reliably, start using your cue. Add distance and distractions to the recall just as you would for a sit or other behavior. Calling a young puppy from across the yard when she is exploring a new, interesting scent is setting yourself and your pup up to fail. Walk to within a few feet, kneel down, and call her from there—and make sure to reinforce her for abandoning the distraction with something even better.

Success comes from repetition. Don’t increase your distance or distractions until your dog responds immediately and enthusiastically to the recall cue. While you’re training, remember to give a super-good reinforcement every time you call your dog.

The collar grab

When you call your dog, take hold of her collar before you deliver the reinforcer—and do that every single time. It does you no good to have a recall if you can’t then catch your dog. Dogs have been killed because they avoided their owners’ hands and, at the last moment, bolted into the street. Having someone reach out to grab and restrain you is startling at best. Associate reaching and grabbing with good things by feeding a yummy treat once you have a hand on your pet’s collar.

Exercises for excellence

Try these recall games to help teach your pet recalls are fun and rewarding:

  • When your dog is several feet away, say her name and give your recall cue. Then begin running backwards away from the dog. Click when she starts toward you and reward her when she catches up. This exercise engages the dog’s natural desire to chase.
  • While you’re training, remember to give a super-good reinforcement every time you call your dog.
  • Ask one or more friends or family members to help. Stand eight or ten feet apart, facing each other (or make a circle, if you have more than two people). Have one person call the dog. Click as soon as she starts toward the person, and have the person give a treat. Then have the next person call her. Repeat, gradually increasing the distance between people.
  • Practice recalls in your house. Call your dog from across the room, from another room, from upstairs, from downstairs. Have a friend hold your dog (or ask your dog to stay) for a moment, then play hide-and-seek.

While you’re training, remember to give a super-good reinforcement every time you call your dog.

Tips for success

Keep the following tips in mind as you train your recall and incorporate the recall into everyday life:

  • Always make recalls rewarding.
  • Use the highest value rewards you have.
  • If you don’t have a reward handy, make a big production of taking your dog to get one. She earned it, and the whole party is a jackpot.
  • Practice calling your dog away from something she wants, give her a high-value reward, and then let her go back to what she was doing. Practice that a lot.
  • Do lots and lots of short-distance recalls. You’ll get more reps and build a habit faster. Grab your dog’s collar before you give the reward every time. Again, a recall is no good if you can’t catch your dog.

Call your dog one time

If she doesn’t respond, go and get her (except during training, when a non-response is considered an error and dealt with through extinction). Don’t call your dog when she isn’t going to respond. Yelling “Missy, come!” over and over as she runs around ignoring you only weakens your cue. Practice your recall in distracting situations, increasing the level of distractions gradually.

Finally, don’t take recalls for granted

Remember, your dog’s life could depend on the reliability of her response. This means never, ever punish a recall:

  • Don’t call your dog and then do something she doesn’t like, such as crating or confining her and then leaving her alone.
  • If your dog is doing something you don’t want her to do, don’t call her and scold her—or even call her and ignore her. If you call her, reinforce her for coming.
  • If your dog is doing something she enjoys, don’t call her away without rewarding her. Balance the times when fun ends with several “practice” recalls after which she is allowed to go back to what she was doing.


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