The first step in clicker training is to teach the animal that the clicker sound means that they will get a primary reinforcer, usually food. To do this, some trainers “charge” or “load” the clicker. To do this the trainer clicks the clicker and immediately thereafter gives the animal a reward, usually a tasty treat, one small enough to be consumed almost instantly. Some animals tend to learn the association much more quickly than others. Progress may be tested by waiting until the dog’s attention is elsewhere and then clicking. If the dog immediately looks toward the trainer as though expecting a reward, it is likely that the dog has made the association.
After that, the trainer uses the clicker to mark desired behaviours as they occur. At the exact instant the animal performs the desired behaviour, the trainer clicks and promptly delivers a food reward or other reinforcer. One key to clicker training is the trainer’s timing; clicking slightly too early or too late rewards and therefore may reinforce whatever behaviour is occurring at that instant. The saying goes, “you get what you click for.”
Clicker trainers often use the process of “shaping,” which means gradually transforming a specific behaviour into the desired behaviour by rewarding successive approximations to it. Clicker trainers learn to split behaviour instead of lumping it, i.e. to look for and reward small steps in the right direction rather than waiting for the whole, “perfect” behaviour to appear on its own. It is important to create opportunities for the animal to earn rewards very frequently. A reinforcement rate of one click/treat every two to three seconds is common among professional dog trainers. Criteria for receiving the click is tightened gradually, at the rate the animal is comfortable with and so that it will remain successful.