Class Clicker Techniques, Part One | Guide Dogs for the Blind Skip to main content

Guide Dog Class Lecture: Class Clicker Techniques, Part One

Clicker Training is the popular term for a training method based on what science knows about how living organisms learn. These methods provide enjoyable consequences to the dog in exchange for behaviors from your dog that you desire. Clicker training is a positive-reinforcement-based system of training for a dog or any animal species. Simply put, it is associating high value rewards with behaviors you desire from your dog, with the goal of your dog continuing to perform those behaviors.

We call enjoyable consequences “rewards” and the entire reward process is called “reinforcement.” Clicker trained dogs will actively try to learn new behaviors and will remember those behaviors years later. Clicker trained behaviors are performed by the dog with confidence and enthusiasm because the dog plays an active roll and has control over your giving them rewards. They are enthusiastic because they understand that their performance will be rewarded with something very pleasurable.

Operant Conditioning
Operant conditioning means an animal intentionally performs a behavior in order to gain a desired reward. Researchers consider clicker trained animals to be learning in a manner called “operant conditioning.”

How Does It Work?
The essential difference between clicker training and reward training without the clicker is that the dog is precisely told which behavior earned a reward. The exact moment in time the behavior happened is communicated with the distinct ‘click’. The exact moment that needs to be communicated is less than a second in time. This brief click precisely marks that moment the dog did the behavior, letting the dog know exactly what action is being rewarded. Although the actual food reward follows the click a couple of seconds later, the dog fully understands what minute behavior is being rewarded.

First of all, a dog needs to associate the Click with a highly valued reward. The click connects the behavior to its reward, and is called a “bridging signal.” Before a dog can begin learning through Clicker Training, they need to be taught the association of the Click with food reward.

All guide dogs at GDB learn that a “Click” means food reward is imminent during their first week of formal training. The majority of the behaviors they learn in guide dog training were initially taught via clicker training. This means that your guide dog is what is called “clickerwise”, and will immediately respond upon hearing you click for a behavior. Even after several months without experiencing clicker training, a “clickerwise” dog will instantly show pleasure upon hearing their handler click for a behavior, expecting food reward. They remember the distinct sound and relate it to a very fun way of learning.

Without using a click to mark the precise moment a behavior occurs, the dog may not connect the reward with the behavior the handler is trying to train. Worse yet, the animal may associate the reward with another, unwanted action. With the click, a handler can very precisely “mark” the desired behavior so that the animal understands exactly what caused the reward. That’s why clicker trainers call the click an “event marker.”

Will You Always Need to Carry and Use this Clicker?
No. Clicker training is used to teach new behaviors or to improve existing behaviors. Once the dog fully learns a behavior, the handler doesn’t need to use clicker but just follow through with the reward. Whenever a handler wants to teach their dog a new behavior, or fine-tune an old one, using the clicker will greatly assist the learning process. Clicker trainers save using the clicker for the next time they want to train or modify a behavior. Think of the clicker as a “teaching tool” that you do not need once your dog learns a behavior.

How Long Do You Need to Use Food Reward for a New Behavior?
It depends on how difficult the behavior is for the dog. New behaviors can be maintained using food reward on a variable schedule, combined with using praise rewards 100% of the time. This means you may give a food reward (along with praise) every other time your dog performs the behavior and apply praise reward alone the alternate times. As the behavior becomes more habitual, food rewards can be gradually omitted.

Is the Clicker Magic?
No, the clicker is simply an effective auditory “event marker.” For a sound to be effective as an event marker, it must be very brief, distinct, and consistent in its sound each time. The clicker fills these requirements and is a sound that dogs respond to even in noisy environments. Marine mammal trainers use whistles as event markers due to their animals easily hearing that sound.

Could you use a verbal word, like “Yes,” as an event marker? Sure you could, but it would not be as precise as the clicker. Besides not being as brief a sound, how many times in a day do you say the word “Yes” in conversation? How many different inflections of “Yes” are there in your voice? The clicker is simply a very effective “audible marker” tool.

Clicker Basics

1. With a “clickerwise” dog – Do NOT press the clicker unless you are marking a behavior you intend to reward. Clicking the clicker without rewarding your dog will lessen its strength as a teaching tool. Always give a food reward within a few seconds after the click. Avoid playing with the clicker in your dog’s presence. If you want to practice pressing the clicker, go into another room, away from your dog. Press the clicker quickly, down and release. It actually has a rapid 2 tone sound.

2. It is advisable to hold the Clicker in your leash hand, leaving your other hand free for giving the food rewards. Your food reward pouch should be easily accessible and ideally placed on or just behind your right hip to be somewhat out of sight from your dog. This way, with your dog at your left side, your dog cannot focus on the food pouch and will be able to keep all their focus on you.

3. Click DURING the desired behavior, not after it is completed. The timing of your click is crucial.

4. The Click tells your dog – “You did a behavior that I am going to reward” and they will immediately be expecting you to reward them. Your dog WILL stop action behaviors when it hears the click, as the click ends the behavior. Even with a non action behavior, like a Sit, if you are standing a few feet away, the dog may break the sit to come and get the reward.

5. If you click, even by accident, – reward your dog. If you want to express special enthusiasm, increase the number of food rewards, not the number of clicks. Avoid the tendency to give multiple clicks when you are excited about a behavior your dog performed. One clear Click = Reward.

6. Continue to enforce the rules of food reward. Your dog must wait for you to bring the food to their mouth and accept the food politely. In the workshop, you will be shown techniques to use with your dog if they become overly zealous during rewards.

7. Keep practice sessions short. Much more is learned in three 5 minute sessions that have some break time between them than in an hour of boring repetition. Your goal is to quit a training session while your dog is still motivated and interested in learning the new behavior.

8. You can work on getting rid of bad behaviors by clicking an alternative good behavior. An example would be Clicking and rewarding your dog for all 4 paws on the ground, before they jump up on a visitor.

9. Use tact in making your dog feel they have permission to experiment. If you place your dog in a formal “Heel” and “Sit”, your dog may be reluctant to move out of that position if you are trying to teach them to target an object out in front of you. This means allowing your dog to feel “off duty” without losing general control.

10. When trying to teach a new behavior, Click for voluntary (or accidental) movements toward your goal. You may prompt or lure your dog 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. Click and treat for small movements in the right direction.

11. Opposite from Traditional training methods, you will not assign a verbal cue or hand signal to new behavior until your dog is consistently performing the behavior. When dogs begin to learn a new behavior, they will begin showing it to you spontaneously, trying to get you to click. This shows you that your dog understands the behavior and this is the time to add a verbal cue word or hand signal. When you can predict the dog will perform the new behavior, you simply add the cue prior to the behavior happening. Keep in mind that at this point the new cue means nothing to the dog. Click the behavior if it happens during or after the cue. Quickly the dog will associate your new cue with performing the behavior. This is also when you start ignoring the spontaneous offers of the behavior when the cue wasn't given. Your dog learns that the new behavior is only rewarded when you cue the behavior.

A note about cues: Some behaviors are cued by the environment with no reminder from the blind handler (i.e. curbs, stairs, and clearing obstacles). Other behaviors should be put on a verbal word cue so the handler can request them when desired, having the dog ignore other opportunities to offer the behavior (i.e. find a “chair”, “pole”, “door”)

12. If your dog does not respond to the new cue, it is not disobeying; it just hasn't learned the cue yet and you probably added the cue too soon. Gain more repetitions of the behavior that you can click to develop a more predictable response from your dog. Once the behavior is predictable, then try adding the cue. Also, when adding new cues, working in less distracting environments can help the dog be successful for several repetitions.

13. If you are not making progress in catching a particular behavior, you are likely clicking too late. Accurate timing is important to precisely tell the dog what you want. Having someone else observe you, and perhaps assist by clicking for you a few times, can be a good solution.

14. Problems with communication can easily occur due to how you are delivering the food reward. Your food reward hand should not move during the actual click, as that motion can distract your dog from the click. Dogs notice even minor movement, especially your movements towards your food reward pouch. (Although reward must come soon, do not move your hand toward your reward as you click – it must come after the click to prevent confusing your dog.)

What Behaviors Can I Teach My Dog?
Any behavior a dog is physically capable of doing can be trained following these three simple steps:

1. Get the behavior.

2. Mark the precise moment of the behavior.

3. Reinforce the behavior.

Using Clicker Training with Your Guide Dog
There are two ways to use clicker training to enhance your work and relationship with your guide:

1. Teaching new behaviors to your guide dog. Targeting/Locating specific physical objects: empty chairs, pedestrian crossing buttons, doors, islands in crossings, up curbs at difficult street crossings, and more. Can you think of any others? Bring your thoughts and ideas to the workshop.

2. Improving established behaviors your guide dog already knows (i.e. obedience behaviors). Consider using this for behaviors you cue when you are stationary, meaning your dog is not guiding you. (Remember that the click will immediately stop the dog, making your use of it while your dog is moving more challenging.)

Not happy with your dogs response to “Sit”? You can improve it by using the clicker to mark the desired behavior, making your dog work harder at performing the behavior. What other established behaviors would you like to improve? Is clicker training suitable for that task?

At the workshop, we will discuss other ways you can improve established behaviors. See you at the workshop!

We hope you have enjoyed this introduction to Clicker Training with your guide dog. Our next seminar will discuss the mechanics of teaching your guide dog the first behavior – targeting your outstretched hand with their nose. We will take you step by step through the process and once you have the hand targeting behavior, you can use it to teach your guide to show you many different specific destinations, such as pedestrian walk buttons, empty chairs, and specific doorways.

Hope to have you join us then.

Clicker Resources

  • Clicker group for people who are blind or visually impaired available at (search for the "vi-clicker-trainers" list and subscribe)

Audio Streaming

You can stream the audio of the class lecture here, via a Soundcloud widget. If using a screen reader, please select the "Play" option below.