When you train your dog they learn by associating the correct behaviour with a reward, this reward, however, must come in a timely manner otherwise you will end up rewarding the wrong behaviour. There is a tool that you can use to help mark the exact behaviour you are looking for when training your dog (or pig, but more on that a little later), it is called a clicker.
The clicker is a hand-held device that when pushed makes a distinctive ‘click’ sound that your dog associates with a reward. You must reward after every click, even if you click by accident. The click is made as soon as your dog performs the action you are looking for. The click tells your dog a reward is on its way, and that he has performed the correct behaviour.
However, in my opinion a clicker should only be used in certain situations. The clicker is a precision tool, it is best used after your dog has learned the basic behaviour and you would like the behaviour to be sharper. For example, if you are teaching heel and your dogs heeling is a little loose then you can use the clicker to pinpoint the perfect position of a heel, close and tight. The clicker is also ideal for people who have injuries, some reactive dogs, training distance work, or people who are slow-moving as the clicker helps bridge the lag between the food and performing the correct behaviour.
The best way I have heard clicker use described was by my very first dog trainer, he told me ‘the clicker is like a camera, you press the button as if you are taking a photo of the exact behaviour you want as soon as it is being performed’.
The clicker should not be used for beginners as it is just another thing for people to have to think about, carry and use. If you are going to use a clicker you must have a good understanding of the behaviours that make up a skill and how you are going to develop these behaviours through the clicker. If you belong to an obedience club and are working on sharpening your dog’s skills then talk to your dog trainer about the possibility of using a clicker.
The clicker needs to be ‘charged’ before use, this means you give the clicker meaning for your dog. Click and treat and repeat this pattern at least 10 times. After charging the clicker your dog will have developed an association between the click and food. Once your dog shows interest in the click you can begin using it to mark behaviours. Once your dog has developed the sharpest behaviour possible you no longer need to use the clicker for this behaviour.
A number of years ago I was approached to train a pet piglet. The clicker was perfect for this as I knew we could not feed the piglet quick enough for him to associate the behaviour with a reward. I filmed our second session, after the clicker had been charged, where we were teaching him to push a soccer ball with his nose. Check out the video and you will see clicker training in action.