A clicker is a small plastic and metal box-type device that emits a 'click!' or cricket-sounding noise. It is one of the most effective training devices around. Training with a clicker is a wonderful way to enhance communication between you and your dog.
But to be successful with clicker training, one must have a basic understanding of canine behavior. It's not as difficult as it may seem.
This requires you to not only observe what your dog is doing, but what you are doing as well. Watch what happens immediately after a behavior occurs. Most behaviors in dogs occur because they are reinforced, or rewarded.
A dog will jump on the counter because he has smelled food there. He finds the food, then eats the food. The counter-jumping behavior has been reinforced (jump on counter, get treat!). The dog will continue to jump on the counter as long as he finds food there- even if it is only occasionally. But if the counters are cleared every time, and no food is left there, then the counter-jumping behavior will no longer be rewarding for the dog. The counter-jumping behavior will slowly disappear.
You call your dog to you, but he only comes half of the time. Why? Take a look at every single consequence that has occurred when you call him. You call him, and you go outside- he sees this as a good thing. Later you call him, and he gets a bath- he sees this as a bad thing. Still later, you call him for to play fetch- good thing. Then you call him to yell at him for getting into the trash- bad thing. See the pattern? Reliability of behavior comes only when it is consistently rewarded in some way or another.
You're wondering, “What the heck is a 'primary reinforcer'?” Don't let the terms scare you. Primary reinforcers are related to biological drives, like food, water, sleep, etc. One of the most popular primary reinforcers for dogs is food. With clicker training, we use treats as primary reinforcers.
A secondary reinforcer is something that occurs just before the dog gets the primary reinforcer. It is a signal that the primary reinforcer is coming. This is where the clicker comes in. The clicker works well as a secondary reinforcer for three reasons:
As your dog learns the desired behaviors, you will phase out the clicker.
See also: Our recommended clicker training books!