Clicker Mechanics

As a teenager I remember training in the athletics team at school, being tall and agile I fared well in the 200 meter hurdles, but I recall the hours spent practicing. I had many different mechanical (physical) aspects to think about, stride timing and positioning, timing and movement of my leading leg and trail leg, timing and movement of my torso and arms etc. I then had to seamlessly pull all of these aspects together. In short I had to learn complex mechanical movements in proper sequence for optimal performance.

Clicker training also requires mechanical skill; it is about timing of the “click”, timing and delivery of the reinforcer, and movement of both the teacher and learner. Although clicker training is not complex, capturing and shaping behavior needs to be learned, it certainly does require practice, and I always recommend practicing keys skills without your dog first and instead play some training games with humans.

What is shaping? Shaping allows you to build a desired behavior in steps and reward those behavior sub-steps that come progressively closer to the final finished behavior. Basically you are splitting the final behavior down in to easy to manage steps, you move through the steps by gradually increasing the criteria for a click and treat. With capturing and shaping there is no luring, you simply wait, capture the very first small step, then shape the rest of the sub-steps to the final behavior. Training in this way will make you very observant of your dog and give you great timing skills, but best of all you will have a dog happy and willing to give you attention, as well as a dog that thinks and problem solves.

The Key Skills

Clicking the clicker: This sounds obvious right, but you need to be able to do this comfortably and quickly using either your right or left hand. It also helps if you can press the button with either your thumb, index finger, or palm of your hand (the fleshy part at base of thumb). In addition you need to aim for consistency in the sound of the click, sound will vary depending on how fast you are at pressing and releasing the button, so bear in mind that the tone should be a short sharp “click”.

Exercise 1

The best and easiest way to practice this is to record yourself clicking. Click 20 times with your thumb, then repeat 20 times with your index finger, then again using the fleshy part of your palm. The length and tone of the click should be consistent. Now up the criteria, repeat this exercise, but time yourself, can you do 20 clicks in 20 seconds? If not then simply practice until you can, why? You’ll see why later in this post. Then repeat entire exercise with your other hand.

Less is more: This is a very important aspect of clicker training, but is often overlooked. If you are finding that your dog is not “getting it” then too much movement could well be the reason. Dogs are highly observant, they constantly watch us, they are masters of subtle body language, so to avoid giving your dog any accidental cues, be still when you click. In clicker training you only add the cue once your dog is voluntary offering the behavior to a reliable level. It will confuse your dog if you are pointing the clicker around as if to emphasize “Hey look I’m clicking.” Similarly if your treat hand is moving toward the treat pouch as you click, then your dog will be focusing on your hand and the treat, and not the click. So practice being still, keep your body still and have your arms at your side. When learning a new behavior you want your dog to focus on the sound of the “click”, this is the only piece of information your dog needs at this stage. The click conveys “yes that is the behavior”, so take care not to dilute the click with any extra unnecessary “noise”.

Exercise 2

So practice being still. Repeat exercise 1 above and have a family member or a friend give you feedback on how still you are. Repeat while sitting down, while kneeling, and while walking. Yes, for teaching certain behaviors such as walking to heel, you need to be moving, but again you really want your dog to be focusing on the click and what is going to make you click again. So walk with your arms at your sides, try not to swing them as you normally would, but keep them relaxed at your side. Less is more, any extraneous information you give at this stage will need to be phased out at a later stage, and often what you will find is that it clogs up the mechanics of clicker training, making the learning process for both handler and student slow and patchy.

Click on time: As the saying goes, timing is everything, and this is very true in clicker training. The click needs to be on time because it lets your dog know the precise behavior that has earned him a reward, which means he knows precisely which behavior to offer again to hear the click and earn more rewards. If you click too soon or too late you will be marking and then reinforcing the wrong behavior, as Bob Bailey says “you get what you click”. To think about timing and why it is so important, imagine you are a sports photographer, you’re at a football match and your task is to get a photograph of player number 7 as he kicks the ball, every time. Not as his foot approaches the ball, and not as the ball leaves his foot, but as his foot touches the ball. You have to have keen observation and timing skills to click the camera button at just the right moment to capture the shot. These are exactly the same skills you need to capture the right behavior with a click.

Before you start clicker training your dog, it is a good idea to first practice your observation and timing skills without your dog. Here are a few fun suggestions:

Exercise 3

Observation and timing: Have a family member or friend throw a ball up in the air and as the ball hits the floor click. Do this 20 times and get feedback on your timing, too early, too late, or on time. Repeat but have the ball bounced off the floor and click when it reaches its highest point before falling again, and get feedback on your timing. Repeat this exercise using both your left and right hand until you are able to click on time at least 18 out of the 20 times.

Exercise 4

Observation, timing, and shaping: This is a really fun game to play with family members and/or friends; you are only limited by your imagination. Start off with capturing and shaping fairly simple behaviors. So clicker train a friend to walk over to a specific chair and sit down. Your friend is not to know what this behavior is (obviously), so your task is to shape this behavior by clicking for small sub-steps toward the final behavior. For example, if your friend glances in the direction of the chair, you click. If your friend turns his/her head to face the chair, you click. If your friend turns his/her face and body to face the chair, you click. He/she takes one step in the direction of the chair; you click, and so on until your friend is seated in the chair. As you do this don’t give anything away by using your body language, have your arms at your side, and just click.

Do you remember playing the hot and cold game when you were young? An item would be hidden somewhere and you had to seek it out, but the only feedback you were given was by someone shouting “hot”, “cold”, “warm”. Shaping is similar to this game except the only feedback you give is a “click” for hot, or no click for cold.

It is well worth while playing lots of shaping games to really hone your observation and timing skills before you start shaping behavior with your dog. Have fun and use your imagination.

Click and treat: How you click and treat it really important, many beginners make the easy mistake of already having the treat hand moving toward the pouch to get a treat at the same time as clicking, or holding the hand with treat close to the dog’s mouth while clicking. I can understand why this happens; you’re trying to deliver the treat as quickly as you can to reinforce your dog. However by doing this your dog will be focusing on your hand and/or the treat, but not the click. The click and treat action should be sequential, but not overlap.

Exercise 5

Click and treat delivery: A great way to practice this is to put a bowl on a table, and place 20 treats in your pouch. Then stand still with your arms at your side, click, then after you have clicked move your hand to get a treat from your pouch and put the treat in the bowl. Repeat until all 20 treats are in the bowl. Practice this exercise several times.

Exercise 6

Timing of click and treat delivery: Have a clock with a second hand, or use a stopwatch. Have the empty bowl on the table and 20 treats in your pouch. Give yourself 30 seconds, click, and then after you have clicked move your hand to get a treat from your pouch and put it in the bowl. How many treats did you manage to deliver in 30 seconds? Keep practicing this until you are able to put all 20 treats in the bowl within 30 seconds. Why? Well this equals a click and treat delivery time of 0.5 seconds, meaning that after you have clicked you are able to get a treat from your pouch and reward the desired behavior 0.5 seconds after the click. Being able to do this greatly improves your clicker mechanics.

Check out this video to see how the shaping process works.

by, Angela Adams MSc CABC