Diamonds in the Ruff
My Dog is Afraid of the Clicker
Some dogs are more sensitive to sound than others. The sharp ping of the clicker may be startling at first.
What to look for:
Your dog may flinch at the sound, visibly startle, or try to escape to distance themselves from the noise. Or it may not be so obvious. He may seem merely a little more quiet than usual. If he's usually a bit hyper, he may actually seem better behaved and calmer. His normally happy expression may look subdued or even sad. His ears may droop or pin back. He may yawn, blink more, and look away from you. He may shake-off when the training session is over. These are all stress signals.
It may not happen right away. Your dog may be fine in class and not show signs of concern until the sound happens in the context of your house. Why? Maybe it's the room you selected to work in. In the context of the busy classroom, the noise just didn't stand out. Maybe your house is a normally quiet place, and the contrast was surprising.
What can we do to help our dog learn that the click is a good thing and not scary at all?
Muffle the sound or change to a different marker.
Dampen the sound of your box clicker by placing a bit of poster putty inside the dimple end to muffle the metallic sound. You can increase the amount of poster putty depending on how sensitive your dog is. Completely covering the dimple at the base of the clicker can dampen a huge amount of the sound. You could put layers of tape on the metal tab. You could also use a button-type clicker, ballpoint pen or baby food jar lid (harder to have good timing with, but quieter) instead of a clicker. The value of the mechanical clicker vs. a verbal marker is the crisp and unique sound. Creating a unique and consistent sound like saying "BIP!" might also work better than a verbal marker "yes!", although your timing will generally be better with your thumb than your mouth, which is another benefit of the clicker.
Mild avoidance can be desensitized, but if your dog is genetically predisposed to a high startle response, toss the clicker and find a different marker. If the dog has had a traumatic experience related to sound, it's not fair to them to torture them with something that terrifies them.
Location! Be mindful of where you hold the clicker and where you choose to train
Clicker and treat hands should be held in neutral position. Keep both hands centered against your stomach. Make sure the clicker is not near your dog's face or extended toward him like a TV remote. Avoid "aiming" it at him.
Choose a room with poor acoustics. Avoid the kitchen or bathroom where hard floors and appliances echo the sound. There's a reason we sing in the shower! Choose a room with couches or a bedroom where the furniture will absorb the echo, or a carpeted room. Or work outside.
Improve your dog's motivation
Use crazy amazing rewards. Something so wonderfully motivating that they can work through challenges to gain it.
Work before meals when they are hungry, not after dinner when they can do without "dessert."
Create a positive association. Make a list of everything that your dog loves and looks forward to. When the dog is off in another room, click once and:
Get out their dinner dishes and prepare their food.
Click and go pick up their leash and invite them to go for a walk or go play ball.
Click and go pick up your car keys and call "Let's go for a ride in the car!" if that's something they really enjoy.
The click announces a great thing is about to happen. It's like the doorbell predicts a visitor. You'll know they've made the connection when the dog comes running to see what's in store when they hear you click.
Timing: Click (pause) THEN toss a treat. With the clicker pressed against your stomach to help muffle the sound, click and count one-thousand-one before moving your food hand. Sometimes we accidentally overlap - the food hand twitches before or just as we click and the dog notices it. If the perception is 'food-then-click' the dog may mistake the noise as a correction and not a "here comes the food" predictor.) This could be especially pronounced if a sensitive dog has a previous history of experiencing a startling correction when taking something they shouldn't (clap, penny can, stomp, "ah-ah" or booby traps.) The pattern becomes 'food-causes-noise.' It creates conflict about the meaning and can poison the reward. Make sure the noise predicts the food.
Make the sequence of "click makes treat appear" obvious. Put both hands in your jacket pockets - food hand in one pocket and clicker hand in the other. One pocket clicks and then the treat hand appears out of the other. Swap and practice clicking and tossing treats with your other hand.
Caution! Be aware of your unconscious body language, facial tension, or tone of voice. When focusing on timing and mastering your own skills, your face may tense into a scowl as you concentrate on what you are doing. You may even chastise yourself out loud for bad timing or missing a click. YOUR DOG THINKS YOU ARE TALKING TO THEM. For sensitive dogs, going still, staring more than usual as you watch their body while you focus on timing the perfect click may seem creepy or sinister to your dog. That guilty response may not be the clicker at all! Sit back, Be light. Have fun. Smile. Laugh at yourself.
Exercises to practice:
Start with Pattern Games before moving on to Skill Building
Create a fun Pattern Game with no social pressure to the get the correct answer to a cue.
Start by setting up a pattern using your "yes" marker first. Call "get it!" and roll a REALLY fabulous treat a short distance away for him to chase (start close and build distance. Help him find it if he misses where it went. Use a light-colored treat on a dark floor / dark on light floor to make it easier for your dog to track it. Cheer as he chases it. This should be FUN. He should be smiling. When he captures the treat and turns toward you in anticipation of the next throw, call "get it!" Make sure he is looking at you as you toss another treat in a direction that keeps him rushing back and forth on the other side of the room. Target behavior: The dog is enthusiastically turning in expectation of each throw. The goal is to create a strong happy pattern game so you can add the click and then throw when the dog is still at a distance crossing the room left-to-right. Do a few sessions without the clicker until the dog is really good at the game. Next, click the head turn and then "get it!" and cheer as the dog races to collect each AMAZING treat. Pattern: dog picks up the treat and turns, you click the turn, then cheer "get it!" toss the treat, and then celebrate "woo hoo!" as he runs to get it.
Work on polishing well-known cues that your dog can perform at a distance. Put up a baby gate and cue behaviors the dog is really good at and enjoys performing from several feet away from the gate. Cheer and encourage them to "get it!" as you toss the treat over the gate to them rather than feeding from your hand. Start with your "yes" until they understand the game and are successful when you are several feet away. Gradually transition to marking with a click for each correct response. This keeps the dog at a distance, reducing the sound, and allows the dog to move away from the clicker to collect the treat, rather than moving toward it. Click what you love and toss the treat.
Still having trouble?
Evaluations & private lessons are available.
If things aren't improving or your dog seems to be getting more fearful instead of less, STOP and contact one of our trainers to meet with you for a private lesson.
Here is another article that may help explain why some dogs struggle with the clicker: