Clicker Training


by Renee Premaza


Clicker training is a form of operant conditioning. A dog (or other animal, such as a dolphin, or a cat, etc.) who is being clicker trained learns that he can manipulate his trainer into giving him a treat by doing a particular behavior. A clicker is a small plastic box with a metal clicker in the center. When you push on the clicker, it sounds just like a cricket. When a trainer uses the clicker, he is looking for a specific behavior and offers the treat as the dog's reward for complying. It is one of the most positive ways to train an animal and requires absolutely no punishment or correction of any kind. When the dog becomes so familiar with clicker training, he will actually work more for the click than the treat. The click is consistent sounding praise. When I've used clicker training on my dog to teach him tricks or something that is really fun, I can watch him thinking. I can almost hear him saying to himself, "Oh boy, oh boy, I'll sit and she'll give me a piece of cheese. Or maybe if I give her my paw, she'll give it to me. What should I do, what should I do?"

I'd like to tell you the story of my relationship with a 14 month-old Border Collie. This dog was used to having his own way in life; he was dominant/aggressive and extremely hand-shy when I adopted him, and if it weren't for the use of a little clicker toy, I am positive he would not be alive today.


In March of 1999, a friend called me and asked if I'd be interested in adopting her 14-month-old Border Collie, Jack, and bringing him to our farm to live. She complained that the dog was nipping and snapping at her children, and if we couldn't take him, she was going to bring the dog back to the shelter where she had originally gotten him as a 3-month-old puppy. I remember visiting with these people several times and noticed the dog had been chained outside without any water. I also remember one occasion when my friend's eleven year-old daughter smacked Jack on his head because he wasn't listening to her commands. I tried to correct the girl about hitting the dog, but she ignored me, and my friend did not support my attempts to teach her child proper dog handling. Several times we were invited to dinner, and when we asked where the dog was, my friend replied that he was in his crate down the basement so he wouldn't bug us. I wasn't surprised to learn that they were having difficulties with him.

I went to her house to get re-acquainted with Jack, since I hadn't seen him for a long time. He barked and growled at me when I knocked on the door, and I was handed a doggy-bone to give him. Jack accepted the bone, and allowed me into the house. After he settled down a bit, I suggested we go for a walk, and he behaved very well. When we came back, I sat down on their front steps, and the dog sat on the same step with me. I put my arm around him and he sniffed my face, my ear, and my jacket. He was behaving very sweetly. Thinking back on this, I was extremely lucky not to have gotten my face bitten off. We went into the house, and I initiated some play with Jack by getting one of his toys and throwing it to him. This is when he showed me that he was an object guarder. He didn't bite me, but he snapped at me when I reached for the toy. This made me nervous, as I'd never seen a dog do this before. I told my friend that I needed to discuss the dog with my husband and we'd let her know our decision soon.

Two weeks later, my friend and her family came for a visit, and they brought Jack down with them. When they left that evening, Jack remained at the farm and became a permanent member of my own family. It has been a very challenging time for both myself and this dog. We've both gotten an extreme education, and we've both experienced very good days and very trying days. As more time goes by, I realize that this dog is the best gift anyone could have given me. I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to save his life, and to have reaped so many rewards as a result of his being here.

During the first few months, I busied myself taking Jack to obedience and agility classes. This kept him exercised and he was showing some improvements in his general attitude. Unfortunately, this wasn't enough to curtail the nipping he was doing. In June, things got very serious; Jack bit someone's hand causing 4 puncture wounds. I had to make a decision. My husband and I discussed euthanasia. I spoke to my trainer and she agreed to start working with Jack privately on a one-to-one basis.


I was first instructed to accustom Jack to the clicker by offering him treats several times a day for two days. Each time I gave him a treat, I was to click the clicker right before he received the treat. By the time we started our lessons, Jack associated the click with receiving tasty tid-bits of things like hotdog pieces, cheese, liverwurst, and the best leftovers I could find in the fridge.

For the next 4 months, Jack and I attended private sessions with our Trainer/Behaviorist, 2-3 times/week. Even though these classes were intense, Jack always looked forward to going, and his bond with his trainer, Barbara, got stronger with each session. Everytime we went to class, I had to put a basket muzzle on the dog to prevent him from biting. Barbara worked with the clicker to try and help Jack to accept physical handling. Because the muzzle was like a metal basket, I was able to give him treats through the side of the muzzle. Barbara did all the clicking, and I did all the treating. I learned that the timing of the clicks is critical.


Here is a list of the things that Jack could not tolerate. If I or anyone else went to do anything with him that involved these things, he immediately nipped:

  1. Grabbing him by the collar
  2. Leaning over him
  3. Brushing him anywhere on his body
  4. Clipping toenails
  5. Reaching over his head
  6. Cleaning/medicating his ears
  7. Taking anything away from him that he had in his possession
  8. Petting him after he was already down for the night.
  9. Making eye contact
  10. Looking at him while he ate a rawhide or other recreational bone
  11. Being at the vet's office
  12. Getting needles
  13. Reaching into his crate while he was inside
  14. Touching his genital area


Another tool that we used, besides the clicker, is called an "Assess-a-Hand". This is a plastic form which looks just like a human arm/hand and is dressed with a sleeve. It has a handle attached to it so the trainer can hold onto it while her own hand remains at a safe distance if the dog were to bite. So, during the first few lessons, Barbara worked with the Assess-a-hand in order to desensitize Jack to being touched all over his body. She concentrated much of her handling around the collar area. If Jack did not respond aggressively to the hand being on his neck, she immediately clicked him and I fed him a tiny treat through the side of his muzzle. It didn't take Jack long to realize he was working for clicks. Very slowly, she began touching him more aggressively around his collar, clicking him anytime he showed no objection to what she was doing. Once the dog was giving us consistent behavior, Barbara upped the ante. She used the fingers on the hand and gently tugged on the collar. Now, the dog did respond with a low growl. He did not get clicked for growling, but seemed to wait for it. Barbara went one step back to a gentle tap on his neck. He was fine with that, so he earned his click and treat. This was a good place to stop the lesson. Her objective was to end any session we had on a good note, the idea being that we wanted the dog to know he succeeded, and not failed.

The next session started out as a review. Barbara began working on areas that we'd already clicked him for. Then she would begin with a newer challenge. Our second lesson was devoted solely to the collar issue. Again, she tugged on Jack's collar and immediately stopped. Jack showed no response, so Barbara instantly clicked him, and he came to me for his earned reward. She tugged at his collar several times that day and we were both very happy that the dog accepted this handling and only wanted to receive a click. The dog was actually enjoying himself. You could almost hear him thinking, "I'm working very hard here, ladies. I know I'm not supposed to growl now. I'm gonna get a goodie if I don't growl, so I won't growl." I watched as Barbara put the hand in the closet. She came and sat down beside me and called Jack to her. Of course, she clicked him for that too! She put Jack in a sit/stay with his head facing in the opposite direction. She looked at me, and my heart started to pound. Barbara reached under Jack's collar with her bare hand and tugged on it. Jack just sat there, but his eyes were trying to look back toward her. She did not click him because he'd done this successfully many times before. She then gently moved the collar around the dog's neck. No response! A quick click and treat. We praised him verbally, clapped our hands and ended the lesson for that day. After about 5 sessions, both Barbara and I were able to reach under Jack's collar, tug at it, and twist it around his neck.

This is pretty much how it went with the rest of his known triggers. Again, using the Assess-a-Hand, we'd start out slowly desensitizing him to being touched with the hand and then we'd end with touching him with our own hands. Jack was a pro with earning his clicks. I found it very interesting that there were some lessons where he showed almost no interest in coming to me for a treat (although I always gave him one). He was so intent on hearing that click, that that was enough reward for him to offer up his very best behavior.

I was relieved that Jack was more willing now to be groomed. In the beginning, I could not use a groomer's comb or the harder bristles of any brush. I followed through with using the clicker at home when doing these things, since it was proving very successful. Also, because he does have allergies, it's necessary to medicate his ears daily. I was able to desensitize him myself to this just by clicking him and giving him a treat anytime I touched his ears. Finally, my hands were beginning to heal from all the nipping I had gotten. I was feeling much more optimistic about Jack's future. Both my husband and I noticed that the dog's eyes were softening. Border Collies do have a tendency to stare, but Jack's way of looking at us was to glare. What we were beginning to see in his eyes looked more like the way puppies look at their owners; we believed we were seeing trust in his face. We also were happy to see that he was beginning to lick us. He had not done this prior to working with Barbara and her clicker.

Things were not always so cut and dried in his training. One day, Barbara put a baby gate between her office and the room in which we worked with Jack. Her phone rang, and she went to lift her leg over the baby gate to go into her office, and Jack went crazy! He ran over to her and would have bitten her leg multiple times had he not been wearing the muzzle! This was the first time we'd seen him behave in a non-defensive manner. She tested him several times on this, and each time she lifted her leg to go over the gate, the dog reacted violently. She and I looked at each other and silently asked, "so what is this?"She even had me go over the gate, but the dog did not show aggression towards me. Two days later, Jack and I headed for our class, and as soon as I entered the room, I noticed the baby gate was back in position; the gate was a main focus of our attention for at least 2 months. Again, by desensitizing him, we were able to elicit a conditioned response from the dog. Barbara put her foot over the gate, Jack ran towards her barking, but learned not to touch her, then she'd click him, and he knew to run right over to me for a treat. He never got to the point where he wouldn't react at all. Despite this neurotic behavior, when people lean over my fence to pet the dog, he has never reacted in this violent manner. Possibly Jack thought that when someone lifted a leg over the gate, they were going to kick him? I don't think we'll ever really know why this caused such a problem.


During this very trying time, Jack was behaving towards strangers by snarling and growling at them. I decided to take the bull by the horns, and began walking him in a very public park. I went armed with lots of treats and my ever-present clicker. I cannot tell you how stressful our first walk in the park was! I came home with a splitting headache, and Jack slept for several hours. The first park I chose to take him to was beautifully landscaped with a huge duck pond in the center, surrounded by a narrow path. I went at the worst possible time of the day, which was lunch hour on a weekday. Women were wheeling strollers, men were jogging, and children were running around the pond excitedly watching the ducks. What seemed like a 10 mile walk was really only one mile. As soon as we began walking, people were walking toward us and behind us. I heard Jack growling under his breath when people were approaching us, so I pulled him off to the side of the path and made him watch people walk by in front of us. He seemed a little calmer doing this, so as long as he wasn't growling or showing any reaction, I clicked my clicker and gave him slices of homemade potroast. We proceeded further around the pond area, and I continued to pull Jack off to the side, clicked and treated him. About halfway around, I sat down on a vacant bench and let the dog just have a look at all of these people. I put him in a down/stay and continued clicking and treating him each time any individual walked by. I did see some progress, but I decided to leave at this point.

The next week, I discovered another park to take him to. But this park has an extremely wide path to walk, and is also surrounded by a huge duck pond. Jack's reactions during this second walk were fascinating. We started out and initially he was a little tense. I heard him doing some huffing, and I just told him, "Jack, you be good now," as we continued our walk. Little by little he stopped being so tense, and I was clicking and treating him for everyone that passed by us because he wasn't reacting to any of them. We were able to stay at this park for well over an hour. Right before I was ready to leave, I looked down at my dog while somebody approached to pass by us. Jack was drooling! I think Dr. Pavlov would have found this very interesting; I know I certainly did!

I am astounded, when I look back almost two years ago, at the difference in my dog. I adopted a dominant dog who figured he could control humans by biting them, he could keep strangers away by showing his teeth and growling, and he was extremely tense almost all of the time. He even had nightmares on a regular basis. Jack has become a very loving dog who shows affection readily. He has gotten more comfortable with being around humans, including the man at the gas station who must come to the window to get paid. Just last week, he allowed a friend of mine to sit in the passenger seat of my car while we went on an errand. He was very friendly towards this person and allowed him to pet him without showing any discomfort whatsoever. I considered this as a huge milestone. Whenever I'm in doubt as to how Jack will react to a situation, I always bring my clicker. It is like having an insurance policy right in your pocket. It tells the dog you want him to behave appropriately, so he responds by trying to please you. We are currently in the process of trying to socialize him with other dogs. He is not aggressive with them, but does not yet know the proper way of saying hello. He is in their face immediately and wants to act a bit like a bully, so we have a lot of work to do there.

Jack retained most of what he learned from clicker training. However, he does still have an issue with his collar. I seem to be the only person he will allow to hold his collar, but he still doesn't like it, and will act a bit antsy if I have to hold onto it for any length of time. So, unfortunately, this is one area he was not able to generalize what he learned. Although he's doing beautifully, we still have some work to do. Since his sessions with Barbara almost a year and a half ago, he's had two incidents of aggression, both occurring last summer. One incident took place with his sheep herding trainer who tried to grab his collar and got nipped on the hand, and the other resulted when my neighbor tried to calm the dog by poking his hand through our fence after a strange dog came up our driveway. My neighbor also got his finger nipped. Rome wasn't built in a day. We will just keep keeping on.


Dog trainers are finding hundreds of ways to use this little box to teach dogs an endless variety of behaviors. It is used in the training of police dogs and service dogs. People are using it to train puppies. There have been numerous shows on television showing trainers clicking cats for doing various tricks; horses are being trained by the clicker to correct a variety of behavioral problems, and to train them for dressage and for jumping competition. Karen Pryor experimented with clicker by using it to train Dolphins. Read A DOG , A DOLPHIN 2.0. An Introduction to Clicker Training by Karen Pryor. This book is not solely about Dolphins. She has many descriptions of the different types of ways an owner can incorporate clicker training into a dog's daily training regimen. Some of these include teaching the dog to walk on a loose leash and teaching sits and downs. One segment is devoted to 101 things to do with a Box.

Another trainer, Gary Wilkes, has a wonderful website where he describes just about anything you need to know on clicker training. His website url is: He describes the clicker as being faster than verbal praise and the trainer has the distinct advantage of having the dog hear it from a distance.

Once the dog understands what the clicker is, the owner or trainer can use it to reinforce very important basics like housetraining. All it takes is watching the dog go potty in the correct spot a few times, clicking and rewarding for it, and the dog then becomes aware of what it takes to please the owner. Recalls are taught more effectively by simply clicking the dog anytime he voluntarily comes over to the owner. This is positive reinforcement in action. Once an animal learns a behavior using clicker, the behavior is remembered for a lifetime.

Jack's trainer, Barbara, decided to throw a clicker party for all of her clients. She handed out clickers to half of the group, along with a folded piece of paper on which was written a specific doggy behavior. Those people who had the clickers were to play the role of dog trainer for the evening. The other half of the group was to play the role of a dog. The object of this game was for the dog trainer to train his dog the assigned behavior that was issued to him. Now, if anyone was under the impression that a dog's thinking process was very basic and not too deep, this little party helped prove otherwise! Here's a description of what one dog had to do to earn her clicks. Keep in mind that the dog; had no idea what behavior she had to perform!

Trainer and Dog stand facing each other. Dog notices trainer has clicker in hand. Trainer just stands there waiting. Dog proceeds to jump around and bark. Trainer clicks dog. Dog looks at trainer intently. Dog moves slightly in the direction of the human bathroom. Trainer clicks. Dog pants wildly. Dog receives no click. Dog spins around. Dog receives no click. Dog looks at bathroom. Dog receives a click. Dog is thinking. Dog watches trainer's face. Dog hears no clicking. Dog takes a step in the direction of bathroom. Trainer clicks. Dog takes several steps in the same direction. Trainer clicks and smiles. Dog races into the bathroom. Dog gets clicked!!

Another assignment had the entire group laughing, because it took quite awhile for the dog to comprehend what the assignment was. Here's the description:

Trainer is seated on a chair. Dog is sitting on floor in front of trainer's chair. Dog barks. Dog does not get clicked. Dog stands up. Trainer clicks him. Dog sits. Trainer does not click. Dog barks at trainer. Trainer does not click. Dog walks away from trainer. No click here. Dog walks back toward trainer. Trainer clicks. Dog gets closer to trainer. Dog hears click. Dog licks trainer's leg. Dog hears no click. Dog walks behind trainer's chair. No click. Dog comes back and stands in front of trainer. Trainer clicks him for this. Dog puts one paw on trainer's knee. Trainer clicks. Dog puts other paw on trainer's knee. Trainer smiles and clicks. Dog barks excitedly and tries to lick trainer's face. Trainer does not click poor doggy! Dog hops up on trainer's lap. Dog gets clicked and a big applause from the group.

Speaking from experience here, it was not an easy task trying to figure out what behavior was expected. Aside from the learning experience of this, it was a wonderful idea for having fun at a party!

The following are some excellent links to get information about clicker training on the web:

Visit Renee's site, The Jersey Dog Trainer for more information on dog training.



You can help rescued Border Collies immediately by making a tax deductible donation to Mid-Atlantic Border Collie Rescue (MABCR) through PayPal. All donations to Mid-Atlantic Border Collie Rescue go towards caring for rescued Border Collies! You can direct your donation to the Fearing-Lowder Medical Fund or to our general fund. Donations of any size are gratefully accepted.

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