Before I started using a clicker, I assumed it was just another added step that wasn't necessary and would only get in the way OR make things more difficult than they had to be. Boy, was I wrong!
So...what is the clicker?
Glad you asked! The clicker itself is simply a marking tool - it helps us precisely tell a dog (or goat, or chicken, or lion, or giraffe, or hyena, etc.*) what behavior they did correctly; the click is a sound that can be used to tell our SideKicks, "THAT right there is what we were looking for; THAT is what gets the reward; and THAT is what you should keep repeating!"
Using a clicker, we teach your SideKick that a click means a reward; usually the reward is a treat because food rewards are pretty high up there in a dog's opinion. Quickly, your SideKick learns that they can earn the click (and associated reward) by doing certain behaviors - and they're going to choose to do those behaviors more often because of that reward!
You might be wondering, "Why even bother with the clicker, though? Isn't it just an extra step like you said...?" I like to use my high-energy, cattle dog mix of a pupper as an example:
When I was teaching her how to Sit, I was watching for her butt to touch the floor - that's usually what the final Sit behavior looks like. So, if she was across the room - let's say, just 10 feet away from me - and I asked for a Sit, I could watch for her butt to touch the floor and start digging in my treat pouch for a tasty treat to give her; but I'm a slow human, so, by the time I have a chance to fumble out a treat and make it across those 10 feet, her high-energy, puppy self has already zoomed onto the next thing. Giving her a treat at that point wouldn't be for the butt touching the floor (the behavior I liked and want to see more of), but for whatever she happened to be doing at the moment.
Considering the same scenario with a clicker in the mix....I asked her for a Sit (again, 10 feet away from me); her butt touched the floor; I clicked; and, because she knows a click means a treat is coming (and mom's a slow human), she just had to wait a few seconds to collect her reward. The click allowed me to specifically mark that butt touching the floor and it buys me a bit of time to get that treat to her.
Why not just use a word to mark behaviors?
Clickers have a few different benefits that can't be attributed to a marker word or even other noises as markers**:
The clicker makes a very unique sound; if you've ever heard one, you know that it doesn't really sound like anything else and your SideKick is pretty unlikely to hear the sound when out and about or around your house. In this way, the sound means one thing and one thing only to them: a reward is yours!
A clicker is consistent. A lot of training colleagues joke that the clicker never has a bad day and that is so, so true. We could use a marker word (like Good or Yes), but that word is going to sound completely different coming from us at the end of a long day at work or the beginning of a 10-day cruise; it'll sound different if the behavior is something you've seen your dog do dozens of times or if it's a behavior you've tried (and tried and tried) to get and only just NOW were able to achieve. The clicker sounds the same every. single. time.
The clicker is quick; the story I mentioned earlier illustrates how much quicker a clicker can be than us slow humans! A twitch of the thumb to press a clicker button is so much simpler and quicker than trying to remember what our marker word is and remembering to keep it super neutral.
Finally, as I've touched on, the clicker is clear and precise; because we can specifically mark a behavior, we can lessen the chances of confusion and frustration (on the dog's part AND on our part), which is a win-win for all parties!
Now, it's pretty easy to say, "Well, Jenn, you use a clicker, so OF COURSE you're going to say we should all use one with our dogs..." And you'd be correct - I'm definitely biased and think anyone and everyone should use a clicker with their SideKicks. However, I often mention to clients how skeptical I was of clickers before I started using the little tool. Like some of my clients, I thought they were extra and unnecessary; but, I was a quick convert to the clicker life - and I've found that that's the case with a lot of my clients.
A recent client stands out in my brain when I talk about clickers and their usefulness. One of the first questions this client asked me - in our very first session and just after I'd introduced the clicker to him and his wife - was, "When can we get rid of the clicker?" By the end of the fourth session I had with the couple and their pupper, I was over the moon to hear him say (when we revisited the conversation of fading the use of the clicker), "Oh, I don't want to get rid of the clicker; it's really useful! I want to use it for everything!"
Does it take some getting used to, using a clicker?
For sure - anything new has a bit of a learning curve, but this is one you and your SideKick will catch onto quick!
Does it require some coordination to use it?
Yes, definitely - all tools do; for instance, I wouldn't avoid using a hammer to put nails in a deck board simply because coordination was needed to use the tool...
Do the benefits outweigh the costs of using a clicker?
* For the purposes of simplicity, I refer to a "dog" being clicker trained and using clicker training for your dog; however, I want to make it clear that clicker training, and/or marker training, can and is used with a very wide variety of animal learners!
** Do you absolutely have to use a clicker for clicker training? Nope! Instead of a clicker, I've seen a whistle used with dolphins and whales, a pulse of light used with goldfish, a mouth click (to keep the hands free for use) used with horses and goats, and a thumbs up used with deaf or hearing-impaired dogs!