What is clicker training?

What is clicker training? Read this article to learn all about this positive reinforcement based method for training dogs, horses, and other animals.

Have you heard about clicker training?

Clicker training is one of the fastest growing training methods because people who try clicker training find that their animals love it. Clicker training is a reward based training system that uses a special signal to tell the animal “Yes! That’s right!” In this article, you’ll learn all about clicker training: what it is, which species of animals it works with, and how clicker training will improve your communication and relationship with your animals.

Why use a clicker?

The clicker is a “Yes!” signal that lets the trainer mark the exact behavior the trainer wants. This greatly improves communication, especially when working on very precise behaviors or when working with an animal at a distance. Clicker trainers often use small plastic clickers. However, clicker trainers also use pen lights, whistles, words, and other devices as “Yes!” signals.

Clicker training is based on the principle of positive reinforcement. The sound of the clicker is always followed by something the animal wants. The animal learns which behaviors the trainer wants because these behaviors pay off. The sound of the click tells the animal—“You did great, come get a reward.”

Clicker trainers often use food as a reward. However, there are plenty of other rewards that can be used during clicker training. This includes scratches or petting, the opportunity to play with a ball or other toy, the opportunity to go to a favorite spot, and so on. Once a behavior is solid, clicker trainers often start fading out the clicker and treats and incorporate the behavior into a larger sequence of behaviors. If you’re skeptical about using food during training because you’ve heard it can teach “bad manners,” check out this research study that looked at the effects of several different training techniques. Also, check out this article for a more in-depth explanation about the advantages of training with positive reinforcement, rather than negative reinforcement or pressure/release.

What animals can be trained with clicker training?

Clicker training has been used successfully with every species imaginable, including dogs, horses, birds, cats, rabbits, rats, dolphins, llamas, turtles, elephants, lions, and even goldfish.

Trainers make some adjustments based on the particular species. However, the underlying principles and philosophy are the same, whether you’re clicker training a Great Dane or a goldfish. Clicker trainers are really only limited by their imagination and their training skill when it comes to what animals and what behaviors can be trained using clicker training.

Many service dogs, movie dogs, and drug dogs are now trained using clicker training. Top Olympic equestrians are using clicker training to enhance performance and improve communication with their horses. And many zoos use clicker training because it gives them safe and low stress ways to train animals for medical and husbandry procedures. Rather than having to dart, net, or capture an animal for a vet exam, animals can be trained to cooperate with vet procedures such as shots, blood draws, sonograms and teeth cleanings. Click here to see an awesome video clip of zoo animal clicker training.

Is clicker training new?

Many people think clicker training is a new training method. However, clicker training has been around for over 50 years! Contrary to popular belief, clicker training did not start with dolphin trainers. The first animal trainers to use clickers were Marian and Keller Breland, both who had been students of B.F. Skinner. The Brelands’ company, Animal Behavior Enterprises, trained dozens of species, including dogs, cows, chickens, raccoons, dolphins, and pigs, for shows, businesses, and even the military. The Brelands also trained many of the first dolphin trainers. Navy marine mammal trainer Bob Bailey later joined their company and helped expand their successful training programs even further. Click here for more information about the history of clicker training.

What about punishment?

Often times, in teaching or training, people focus on behaviors they want to stop. They want the dog to stop barking, the cat to stop clawing the couch, and the kids to stop whining. As a result, people often end up using punishment and threats of punishment to try and reduce these behaviors. This can frustrate and scare an animal or lead to retaliation. As well, punishment only teaches the animal or child what not to do. Many times the animal still does not understand the appropriate behavior the trainer, teacher or parent wants.

Most clicker trainers avoid using punishment. Instead, clicker trainers focus on teaching the animal appropriate alternative behaviors. Imagine you share your house with an overly enthusiastic St. Bernard who loves to jump up and give people wet, slobbery kisses. You are concerned about Fido knocking over your elderly great aunt. You could use punishment-based methods and knee him in the stomach or go out and buy a shock collar. However, research by veterinarians at the University of Pennsylvania has shown that training methods based on punishment, dominance or aggression often lead to animals exhibiting even more aggression and unwanted behavior.

Likely, all Fido wants is a bit of attention. So, a clicker trainer would teach Fido appropriate ways to ask for attention, such as calmly walking up to a person and sitting. In this case, the trainer could make fast progress using attention and petting as a reward, since that is what Fido wants. The trainer might also want to teach Fido that he can earn attention when visitors arrive by going over and lying in his dog bed. Clicker trainers focus on eliminating “bad” behavior by discovering the cause of the behavior, rather than just eliminating the behavior. I encourage you to read Karen Pryor’s book Don’t Shoot the Dog for tons of specific information about using positive training methods to get rid of unwanted behavior (Here’s my review of Don’t Shoot the Dog, for more info).

Shaping Behavior One Step at a Time

Clicker trainers get great results because they understand and use the principle of shaping. Shaping means training in small approximations or steps. The trainer sets up the environment and training session so that the animal is likely to do what the trainer wants and so that the animal can be successful every step of the way. This greatly speeds up learning and reduces confusion and frustration.

For example, when teaching a horse or dog to back up, it would be ineffective to start by asking the animal to back up 5 feet. The animal has no idea what you want! Instead, the behavior can be broken down into little steps. First, the trainer could click (and give a reward) every time the animal shifted his weight back. Then the trainer could wait for one step backward, then two, then three, and so on, until the animal would willingly back up 10 feet from a small cue.

Good trainers are generous in their use of reinforcement (rewards). They set the animal up for success and then reward any attempts or tries on the animal’s part. This helps build the animal’s confidence and makes the animal willing to keep trying. Here are three great video examples of shaping: a rat learning to go through a tunnel, a horse learning to go into a trailer, and a dog learning to lower her head.

I know what you’re thinking—that building behavior in tiny steps like this is going to take a very long time! However, even though it might sound counterintuitive, clicker trainers find that tiny steps actually help the animal learn faster. Since the animal meets success, not failure, at every step, the animal is eager to offer more and tries hard to figure out what the trainer wants. Clicker trained animals are fun to train because they are fast learners and are willing to work hard to figure out the next training puzzle.

To learn more about shaping, check out this in-depth article on the subject from my other site, DogTrainingology.

Clicker Training: The Key to Clear Communication

With traditional training practices, animals often end up frustrated, scared or confused. The animal can’t figure out what the trainer wants or why it would be worthwhile for the animal to comply with the trainer’s request.

Horse clicker trainer Sharon Foley says that if the animal understood what the trainer wanted, was physically capable of doing it, and was motivated to do it, he’d be doing it! Clicker training gives us tools to accurately and clearly communicate what we want and methods to motivate our animals so that they are eager and willing to perform when we ask.

Clicker training will teach you to communicate effectively with your animals, without having to become Dr. Doolittle or an animal “whisperer.” With clicker training, we can use positive reinforcement and a right answer signal to train top-notch performance and behavior. If you want an animal that is polite, willing, smart, brave and athletic, then clicker training is for you!

Want to learn more?

If you are new to clicker training and want to learn more, I highly recommend checking out Karen Pryor’s book Don’t Shoot the Dog, which discusses training principles for all species, not just dogs. Other great resources are How Dogs Learn, by Mary Burch and Jon Bailey and Clicker Training for Your Horse, by Alexandra Kurland. If you are interested in learning more about the scientific basis behind clicker training, please check out my article What is Applied Behavior Analysis?

About the author: Mary Hunter is currently working on a master’s degree in applied behavior analysis at the University of North Texas. She loves that she gets to study the science of behavior all the time! She volunteers regularly at her local animal shelter and at a local horse rescue. She also has lots of fun working with her own pet rats, dog and mice. Receive animal training stories, tips, and tutorials straight in your inbox by signing up for her weekly newsletter.

Questions, comments, suggestions? Please contact me at mary@stalecheerios.com or by using my contact form.

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  • Animals are not exempted to heatstroke they are most sometimes likely are prone to it. 
    As their owners we need to treat them well. 

  • Joy

    You’ve provided a wonderful explanation of the basic facts and lots of solid information. Next time someone asks me a question about clicker training, I’m going to tell them to read your blog post! Joy

  • KellieSadler

    First, I want to say I throughly enjoyed this article! I have a question. Lets say the animal you are working with and you are on, say step two of “Clicker Training a Horse to Trailer Load using Shaping” and the animal offers step 4, completely skipping over step 3. Is is wise to go with it and let the animal progress quickly or are there other issues that are involved with moving too fast?

    • Hi Kellie,

      Thanks so much for the comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the article. 🙂

      You asked an awesome question!

      The short answer, I think, is that it depends.

      However, I think there are several factors to think about when considering whether or not it would be okay to skip a shaping step.

      I have some thoughts about this and it's such a good question that I think I'm going to turn this into a blog post. I'll aim to have it up by the end of the week and I'll let you know when I post it.

      cheers,

      Mary

      • KellieSadler

        Wow, Cool. Thanks!

  • Hertha James

    Hi Mary,  great article in lovely clear language.  Hertha

    • Thanks, Hertha! Glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

      • Lotta von der Heyde

        Hi Mary, thank you for this article it explains good clicker training really well.

  • Cheryl Glen

    Mary, you have written a very well explained clear example of what clicker training is. Thankyou for sharing your knowledge and link to fill the steps to learning more.
    I have shared your link onto my Facebook Page.
    Cheryl Glen

    • Thanks for sharing the link, Cheryl!

      I'm glad you enjoyed the article. 🙂

      cheers,

      Mary

      Sent from my iPad

  • Kari

    Mary, GREAT job with the horses and excellent job explaining the process. I am curious where the best free websites are for learning about clicker training. I have done some with my dogs but never with the horses. Can’t wait to try.

    • Hi Kari,

      I’ve found that the horses love clicker training! You have an advantage, if you’ve already done some clicker work with your dogs. I bet your horses would love to try clicker training. 🙂

      I think the biggest difference between dogs and horses is that with horses, we need to think a lot more about safety. A dog who is over enthusiastic about food is annoying, but an over enthusiastic horse who hasn’t learned manners around food is dangerous.

      Because of this, many horse clicker trainers start by teaching behaviors that are related to safety and self-control. Targeting is a good place to start and, after that, behaviors such as backing up, head lowering, standing on a mat, turning the head away from you and so on.

      Once the horse learns a few behaviors with clicker training, learns how to interact politely with a human when food is around, and understands that food only comes when the horse is polite, then you’re ready to teach just about anything. Many horse clicker trainers initially start with the horse behind a stall door or fence, that way the horse doesn’t have any opportunity to practice being pushy.

      Here’s a link to my resources page: http://stalecheerios.com/clicker-training-resources/
      Near the top is a link to an article by Alexandra Kurland called “Training with Positives.” I suggest starting there. Then, there are links to some other free online websites and discussion groups. If you decide you want to buy any books or DVDs, I recommend starting with Alexandra Kurland’s books. They are great!

      Hope that helps. If you have any more questions, don’t hesitate to ask.
      cheers,

      Mary

  • Stephanie

    Great job on this article, Mary!

  • Pingback: Horses and Permaculture | Connection Training()

  • Katty k

    what about Rabbits?!

    • Hi Katty K,

      Clicker training works for ALL species! And, of course, I can’t list all of them in this post.

      But, I did go back and update the post and I added “rabbits” to the paragraph where I list out a bunch of different species. 🙂

      Do you do clicker training with your bunnies?

      Best,

      Mary

      • Katty k

        I am trying too 🙂

  • Great article! I’m curious if you can recommend any clicker training videos/DVDs?