Clicker training is a type of reward-marker training. A clicker at first has no inherent meaning to a dog, unless it scares him. It’s usually a neutral or meaningless sound. For this reason, trainers charge the clicker by pairing its “click” sound with treats. The click will result in two outcomes –
- The click marks the behavior the dog is doing at that exact moment as correct, and
- The click lets the dog know he has earned a reward for the behavior.
So the clicker’s function is to aid in timing. Normally when we reward a dog with a treat, the behavior the dog is doing when he receives the treat is the one that is positively reinforced, and therefore, will increase its probability of being offered in the future (it worked for the dog to get what he wanted, so he’ll do it again).
Some behaviors occur quickly, and it’s difficult to deliver the reward immediately. The clicker solves this problem. We can mark fleeting behavior correct with a clicker (or another type of marker, like a specific word designated for this purpose, such as “yes!”), and then deliver the treat. The dog will learn it is the behavior that earned the click that is the one that will be rewarded. And it allows us more time to deliver the treat for the behavior we desire.
For many of the typical foundation behaviors, we can simply reward the behavior while the dog is performing it – sit, walking by your side while on leash, down, stay, etc. You can still use a marker, but it’s not necessary. The power is the primary reinforcer, the actual inherent reward/treat, as opposed to the thing signaling it is coming (secondary/conditioned reinforcer or clicker).
Some behaviors that tend to happen quickly include targeting behavior (dog touching his nose to your hand), eye contact, picking up an object (like for a retrieve/fetch behavior), etc., so in these cases a clicker can be helpful.
A marker/clicker is also useful for marking behavior from a distance.