The Science Behind Clicker Training

Clicker training, for those who are unfamiliar (and boy, are you missing out), is a positive reinforcement method that can be used to train any mammal, domesticated or wild. I have even seen fish learn from a modified version of clicker training.

While clicker training, you use a clicker, which makes a “click” noise, to mark the behavior we want to reinforce. The clicker doesn’t mean anything to the dog at first, but by following Pavlov’s lead, we can condition the dog to be reinforced by the clicking sound.

To do this, we would use a primary reinforcer. Primary reinforcers for animals are things like food, water, and sex. Food is the easiest tool to harness, so most positive trainers use food. If the dog is not food driven, we may use toys or something else the dog enjoys.

Conditioning your dog to the clicker is fairly easy. You just “click”, give a treat after the noise. You continue this pattern until your dog is predicting the “click”. I also like to let the dog know they can cause the “click” to happen and it isn’t just a random event by clicking and treating for eye contact.

The clicker itself is only used because it makes a short, consistent sound. You could condition your dog with other things like you saying “yes”, a flashlight turning on or off, or hand signals. The clicker is the tool of choice because it is easy, consistent, and cheap.

Do not worry; you will not have to use the clicker every time you train your dog. The clicker is just a tool to make training easier on you and your dog. I also find it speeds things up and my dogs learn faster when I am using the clicker. The clicker is taken away after your dog has learned the behavior. You can always use it to refresh a behavior later on, but for the most part; you will not be using it again for that specific command.

So, why does this work? If you have ever taken a Psychology class, you have heard of Ivan Pavlov, who discovered classical conditioning by ringing a bell before feeding dogs. He took note that the dogs started to salivate at the sound of the bell. This is called classical conditioning.

In the case of clicker training, we are using an unconditioned stimulus (dog treats) to provide an unconditioned response (happiness, desire, tail wagging, etc.). Once we have found our unconditioned stimulus, we need to use our neutral stimulus. The neutral stimulus in clicker training is the clicker because the clicker is meaningless to the dog until we condition the dog to it.

For the next step, we pair the neutral stimulus (clicker) with the unconditioned stimulus (treats). This will turn our clicker into a conditioned stimulus because we have conditioned the dog to response to the clicker because the sound of the clicker predicts treats. Now, we can use our conditioned stimulus (clicker) to cause a response of happiness all on its own.

This is the same thing that happens for humans on a day to day basis. For example, your phone dings to let you know you have a text message. Depending on the conversation you are having, you might feeling excited or happy. So, you quickly rush to check your cellphone every time it dings.


Clicker training absolutely works on every animal (even deaf and blind animals) and if you find it isn’t working for your dog, you may need to work on your timing or hire a professional clicker trainer to assist you in getting started. If you need help with training your dog, please contact me at LaureneTsao or (769) 251-4104 to set up an in-home training session today!