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To Click or Not to Click, that is the Question

Posted on 09/23/09 12 Comments

 One of the things I am asked about by newcomers to our program is why we do not use a clicker very much. After-all, my website is www.clickerdogs.com you know!  Since I registered that website ten or more years ago my training has evolved quite a bit. Possibly if I had register my website today it would be called www.clicker-only-when-needed--dogs.com. 


Although almost everything my dogs are taught is through shaping I use other conditioned reinforcers more than a clicker. I will say “yes” (hence the name of my business) or “good”  or “excellent” or “supa” or any number of words.  Other times I may say nothing and just chuck the food at the dog while she is in the midst of a response. Yes I still use a clicker, yes I see it as a valuable tool but like any tool you can dull it’s effectiveness if you use it improperly. Take a brand new knife and use it to cut up an old pair of sneakers then a few beer cans and soon you will left without an edge, the tool will become less effective when you really want to depend on it. 


The precision of a clicker was needed when teaching Twister how to "pray."
The precision of a clicker was needed when teaching Twister how to "pray."

In addition to potentially dulling its effectiveness I have also come to realize that each tool in the tool box has a specific use and your job will take longer if you reach for the wrong tool. You won’t get far trying to loosen a bolt with a hammer but also you will have little success trying to drive a nail with a socket wrench.


Okay I am having fun with these analogies so here I go;  imagine you where going into have brain surgery tomorrow, the neurosurgeon has the choice of many tools to cut into your noggin however you would prefer he tinkered on your gray matter with the delicate precision of a lazer or a broad scope of a melon baller?  Both would work to cut into your brain however one is intrinsically a better choice than the other. 


To me a clicker has the precision of a lazer. It is deadly accurate as an auditorial marker for the dog. There are some skills I will train that require such accuracy, for those I will reach for a clicker.  Targeting with one rear paw for example would move along faster with a clicker.  I had to teach Twister to “pray” for a movie years ago (with Molly Shannon if I may name drop:)). This trick would have been far, far more difficult to train without the precision of a clicker.


But very few skills require such accuracy and I have found that that much precision in the hands of someone that has yet to learn how to control their aim (when to click and for what) can create havoc and delay learning for the dog.  I personally feel I am not a good enough dog trainer to use a clicker for everything I teach my dog. I did that with Buzz. Just about everything I shaped I taught him with a clicker. I can write an entire full blog post with what that go me. Some good but a lot of inefficiency.


Next time I will share with you how I have screwed up some of my dogs in the past by using a clicker inappropriately.


Today I am grateful to be home after a week away, a lot of catching up to do before our four day Grad-skills camp starts this Friday!


  1. Liza says:
    Tuesday, April 4, 2017 at 6:22pm

    Hi do obedience and my dobermann is well trained and titled but i would like the focus in the heelwork to be better. She is easily distracted and when i enter the ring she knows there is no food rewards until she gets out. I have failed somewhere with transfer of food value to me and want to retrain. What book would you recommend? She loves to work and highly motivated training when there is fii.


    • Liza says:
      Tuesday, April 4, 2017 at 6:23pm

      Food not fil lol


    • Laurie Rubin says:
      Thursday, September 21, 2017 at 4:54pm

      Liza, I have the same problem as you. Did you ever get a helpful reply on this? I trial my Aussie in obedience. I think the answer lies in lengthening the duration of behavior and increasing the randomization of rewards in training before trialing. I am working on it, but I have not achieved success with this dog yet.


  2. Jen says:
    Sunday, September 27, 2009 at 11:33pm

    I feel like people should learn to use the clicker without the dog, and perhaps clicking other people first. I used a clicker with dogs, my bird, before I went to TAGTeach. Now that I’ve clicked people though, I feel like I can do it a lot better, with every species. I do use my clicker for a lot, but I try to get rid of it fast. I get a bit frustrated watching clicker newbies at times, because their timing and coordination is poor, and they miss so much. I had someone else clicking my dog for eye contact with me while I was supposed to be doing the same for them… I had to feel bad for my own dog, because while I was really trying to watch hers, I kept glancing at mine, and see that he was giving me a great stare, but getting nothing for it.


  3. Kathy says:
    Friday, September 25, 2009 at 9:14am

    I feel like I screwed up my 6 1/2 year old sheltie..by clicking way too much, inappropriately, too often. It contributed to her neurotic idiosyncrasies. Anytime she hears a click, she goes crazy with barking and demanding behavior. What a terrible trainer. I didn’t fade the clicker soon enough, nor have the right timing.

    I have a new puppy, and I used a clicker for sit and down at 14 weeks, and faded it as soon as I added the cue. He is now 6 months, and seems to be a stable young dog so far, and I haven’t used the clicker since the beginning of July. I made a decision before getting him, that I was going to click way less than the previous pup. But when I packed for August Sayyes puppy camp, I packed a clicker, cuz back in 2002 I had a working spot in a 2 day seminar on clicker training with Susan. I didn’t need it at camp, and my pup and I learned alot anyway….very happy with Susan’s methodology. We weren’t the super stars of the camp. I was fumbly with leash, treats and toys, nervous, we were more like the “need more work” campers.

    Now, we started a Puppy Foundation Class with one of Susan’s Camp assistants, therefore repeating a lot of camp information…but that’s fine. We’re changing the habitat, and building the relationship. We’re not using clicker in the class either.


  4. Ron Watson says:
    Thursday, September 24, 2009 at 2:48pm

    Nice thread… stuff sounds familiar, I must say…

    We do a lot of rescue and a lot of times we get dogs that go over threshold with a verbal yes! or even attention being paid to them. Grovelers, neglected pups and dogs with a lot of social drive sometimes come with this frustrating condition.

    Look at them, they’re over threshold. Talk to them, they’re over threshold. I’ve found that working with a clicker at that point in time can be very valuable as the dogs don’t seem to have the same classically conditioned response to the clicker that they do to a human voice.

    I also find that there’s a few of our dogs here that get really, really high in the presence of a clicker.

    Perhaps all of us should go back and take a better look at how the presence of a clicker changes the nature of the game?

    I mean I understand everything each person has said here and seem to have the same belief, but thinking about the dogs that get too high on the clicker that are well adjusted and normal vs thinking about the dogs that get too high on verbal cues and attention that are messed up rescues makes me wonder if they are related issues.

    Does that make sense? :-

    Ron Watson
    <a href="http://pawsitivevybe.com&quot;Pawsitive Vybe
    <a href="http://k9athlete.com&quot;K9Athlete


  5. Christine Jump says:
    Thursday, September 24, 2009 at 2:19am

    I find I’m used the clicker to teach my dogs the mechanics of how to learn a behavior and bring out the clicker to reinforce these from time to time. Reinforcing watching me for instance. Looking toward me. Holding my gaze.

    For general behaviors that I reinforce, such as remaining quietly on his bed it’s g-boy. Or, in the course of walking through tempting distractions well, g-boy and pats. He has no interest in treats in high distraction environments.

    Practicing behaviors in the course of day to day activities I flash him a great big grin as a marker. This one is very effective, it keeps him focused on me, making eye contact and usually precedes a release from a stay position. Or “Yes” to procede with the next phase of a behavior.

    Each of these markers, where deliberately charged to have meaning for him in much the same way as the clicker had been.


  6. Laurie S. Coger, DVM,CVP says:
    Wednesday, September 23, 2009 at 8:51pm

    I second your thought on the power of the clicker and the headaches it can cause used inappropriately…. I had a puppy I was introducing to the clicker. He raised his paw, and I clicked him twice. That’s all it took for a raised paw to become my nightmare, off cue, default offered behavior. And of course anyone who sees it thinks it’s cute, and provides reinforcement to the dog for it…. Be careful what you click, because you will live with it forever in many dogs!

    I would never give up my clicker, but I am now extremely careful with offered behaviors I click!



  7. Mary M says:
    Wednesday, September 23, 2009 at 8:37pm

    Intriguing post and discussion….

    I two interchange verbal reward markers, non-reward markers, clicker use and jackpots in my training. Really this came initially more out of practicality then understanding (sometimes needing to mark a behavior and not having the clicker on my arm), however as I work more with my dogs, and learn more about training techniques, I am seeing the times where the verbal works better then the click (for not so precise behaviors – i.e. can the dog really discern while running on course a click to mean that I am marking their speed in-between the jumps when more likely their trying to figure out if the blink of their eyes, turning of the shoulders, rocking back on their hind….etc, etc. was what I clicked for – I can see this as very confusing for the dog).

    But, I do go back to the clicker on previously learned behaviors when I need to fine tune (back chaining something) a piece of the behavior. This has offered me great success as a light bulb seems to go off for the dog when I pull the clicker back (for very structured sessions working that behavior in a controlled way and fading it back out quickly) out for example going back to the a-frame and clicking the nose target (which got lost at the last trial 😉

    So, while this method (bringing back the clicker at key points in training) has shown me great results with the few dogs I have worked, I wonder your thoughts on this????? Do you pull back out the clicker when you see something specific to work on again? Or, I am having novice luck with this method and things may deteriorate later????

    This fascinates me because I do find it to be a VERY powerful tool and want to be clear that I know my use is correct.

    Thanks for any feedback and thanks for the wonderful post Susan, can’t wait to hear more from you on the next post too!



  8. Ron Watson says:
    Wednesday, September 23, 2009 at 6:02pm

    Nice post, Susan.

    Totally agree. We use the Clicker here for high distraction work or work that requires a lot of precision. It’s almost always used with bombsquad cookies.

    High value reinforcement and sparse usage I think helps to get a bit more focus and attention from our dogs and definitely cuts through the din and enhances the cocktail party effect.

    Part novelty, part high stakes game, the clicker is a great tool but not the only tool.

    We also use several different marks depending on the situation – no reward marks, positive marks, a holy [email protected]#$ marker, and a jackpot marker. Each of these marks have several different verbal expressions as well.



  9. Mary says:
    Wednesday, September 23, 2009 at 5:38pm

    That Twister is so darn cute….Twister deserves to be in the movies!!!


  10. Jenny Ruth Yasi says:
    Wednesday, September 23, 2009 at 4:53pm

    Interesting! I started using a hand held clicker and now I just click with my tongue. I had a dream once and woke myself up because I was tongue clicking a dog in my sleep! Seriously!! But I also have found that I don’t always need to use a tongue click to mark reinforceable behavior and sometimes events can mark behavior better (more clearly/precisely) than a clicker, for example when I turn on my heel and walk toward my dog, that turn can function as a positive reinforcement marker. When I put my hand on the (crate or other) door, that seems to function as sort of a marker signal. Sorta. I don’t *think* I’ve screwed up my dogs by using it too much, but I think it clarifies things for them sometimes when I don’t have them listening for the click, but instead have them watching for other signals that says they are on the right track. The more I learn the less I know though….


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