Verbal “Clicker” Training

Verbal “Clicker” Training

Clicker training is both a training technique and a training philosophy and is based on BF Skinner’s theory of Operant Conditioning. In clicker training, trainers use a marker – usually a noisemaker called a clicker – to identify behaviours that they like. Then, after they mark the behaviour, they reinforce the behaviour, usually with a treat. The theory of Operant Conditioning says that reinforced (rewarded) behaviours are more likely to be repeated.

In clicker training the click or marker is a “moment in time” that pinpoints the activity that is being trained. It tells the dog that what he has just done is right and that he is going to be rewarded for it. So, when I see my dog has done what I want him to do, I click at the right moment before giving him a reward. The dog must learn that it is his behaviour that makes the reward come out. He must figure out what he needs to do to make me give him a reward.

Dog training and linked behaviour has become very exciting of late and much is due to the research and information received from universities from all over the world. As a result dog philosophy (The study of basic dog behaviour) has brought new thinking and a change in our approach to dog training. More recently there has been a return to clicker training. However, the “Clicker” or marker is now more commonly replaced by a word, “Yes” as the marker. In addition to that, the use of the reward (treat / toy) has also seen a change.

When a dog can see the toy or food he desires, in his mind, he is doing things (working) to get the reward he is seeing. He is working for/ to get the ball = reactive dog behaviour (driven by the reward itself). But, by now using “Yes” – without him seeing the reward – he is working to get the handler to produce the (food or toy) reward that he cannot see = active dog (operant dog).

Classical conditioning

Pavlov the famous Russian scientist, created experiments with dogs in which a feeder dropped food into a dish after a bell was sounded. Over time he noticed that the dogs began to salivate when they heard the bell ringing. The sound of the bell that previously meant nothing to them now predicted food. It created a physical reaction in them and he called it Classical Conditioning.

1 Before conditioning: Food leads to salivating; both unconditioned stimulus and response.     2 Neutral stimulus (Bell) has no response from the dog. 3 During Conditioning: Food + bell have an unconditioned response – Salivating. 4 After conditioning:  A conditioned stimulus (Bell) elicits a conditioned response (Salivating).

What he also noticed was that if the sound was emitted at the same time a dog was at the food or eating there was no classical conditional reaction to the bell. Thus, if I say, “Yes” and give food at the same time my dog will not become classical conditioned to my response. The dog knows what he was doing when he hears the sound, “Yes” and what he is going to be rewarded for. He can now wait for his reward while you search for a treat in your pocket. Later the dog does not even have to be near you. Tell him to “Down,” walk away for some distance and on the “Yes” command, the dog comes rushing to you for his reward. Thus, you mark the moment that the dog was correct, but the reward can follow later.

Reactive vs Active

All dogs start as reactive dogs. They walk nicely in the hope of getting the ball and are driven by the reward ball. There is thus no reason why the dog should pay attention to us unless we set it up. Using a marker makes it easier to focus the attention on you.

If you repeatedly call a puppy to look at you, say “Yes” and reward him when he gets it right, you will soon have him conditioned to the reward marker “Yes.” Later, with food hidden on your person, you call him again and say, “Yes” after he has completed the action but he will now expect a reward and if it is not seen, will give you a demanding look, “Where’s my food?” “I know you have it.” This is the change from a reactive dog to an active dog. He offers the behaviour (looking at you) and demands food (he cannot see) from you.

Watch me

Using the method described above, you can now teach the dog to look at your face in the heel position. Standing next to the dog you say, “Watch,” dog looks at your face, “Yes” and reward him. A problem now arises when you reach for the reward in your pocket the dog’s gaze will follow your hand and he will no longer be looking at your face. This necessitates increasing the duration of the “Watch.”


If you now want your dog to stay sitting, lying down, standing or watching etc. you change the reward marker from, ”Yes” to “Good” or “Wait” or words of your choice.

Give a “Sit” command and then say, “Good Sit” or “Go-o-od,” wait a few seconds and reward as before. Repeat the “Sit” command, say “Good” walk away, return and repeat “Good sit” before walking away again and end the exercise with the “Yes” release command. Gradually the duration of each exercise can be extended according to the obedience exercise being conducted. Rewards must always be given after a “Yes” that completes the action and frees the dog.


Great care must be taken not to scold or discourage the dog in any way when he gets it wrong. The aim should be for the dog to want to keep trying to get it right and receive a reward.  Telling the dog that he got it wrong this time you say, “Nope” and withhold the food. If there is no reward then Sit, Down, Come etc. has no meaning to a dog. We give meaning when we use the “Yes” sound because it is a conditioned reinforcer. It creates a partnership that is reinforcing and pleasurable to both trainer and dog.

The word, “No” is not encouraged because you may have scolded the dog at home using “NO!” while angry. If you say “No” during training the dog may associate it with a bad event.

Verbal markers in the form of “Yes,” Good” or “Nope” can be used to refine obedience exercises to a very high level and is now being used by the more serious obedience trainers.