6 common clicker training mistakes and misunderstanings



I am not much of a clicker trainer myself, but I recognize its benefits.

I also know many of you prefer clicker training to other training methods or would at least like to learn more about it. (I actually find clicker training works well with my cat Beamer!)

I reached out to two professional dog trainers and asked them about some of the most common mistakes or misunderstandings they see when it comes to clicker training a dog.

If the rest of you have any additional mistakes or ideas to add to the list, please do so in the comments.

Common clicker training mistakes

Mistake #1 – Using the clicker as an attention-getter instead of a marker.

One mistake people make is using the clicker to get a dog’s attention instead of using it to mark a behavior, said Jennifer Mauger, a professional dog trainer with L’Chaim Canine.

“They click when they want the dog to come to them or when the dog is distracted,” she said. “This defeats the purpose of the clicker. It should be used as an event marker. It marks the moment the dog is performing the correct behavior.”

“It marks the moment the dog is performing the correct behavior.”

Mistake #2 – Poor treat delivery.

While you want to use a treat to reinforce the click, you shouldn’t move your “treat hand” until after the click, said dog trainer Beth Mullen with Dog Latin Dog Training. You don’t want the dog to be focused on your “treat hand.” You want him to be thinking about what gets him the click.

“Click, pause, then move your hand,” she said.

Another issue is that some dog owners will automatically point the clickers at their dogs like a remote, Mullen said. It’s better to hold the clicker at your side.

Mistake #3 – Assuming the dog is food motivated.

“For some dogs, food is not a big motivator,” Mauger said. In those cases, you should pair the clicker with what does motivate the dog such as a toy.

“I have worked with a couple of German shepherds and border collies that were far more motivated by a ball than food,” she said.

Hmm, I think I know a dog like that! :)

Black Lab mix sitting on the rocks at the dog beach

Now, let’s move on to some of the most common misunderstandings about clicker training. Again, feel free to add your own ideas to the list in the comments.

Common clicker training misunderstandings

Misunderstanding #1 – All those treats will make your dog fat.

Obviously when you’re using lots of treats or other food for training you need to factor that into your dog’s daily calories.

Mullen made the point that eating out of a bowl is not necessary for dogs. It’s convenient for humans. She said it’s OK to use some of your dog’s food throughout the day to strengthen the behaviors you want.

Misunderstanding #2 – Clicker training is only for ‘easy’ dogs.

Clicker training is used for all kinds of dogs, Mauger said. It’s a concept used by some professionals to work with dogs with severe behavioral problems such as aggression or separation anxiety.

She said people don’t always realize clicker training is based on sound science. It’s not some sort of “gimmick.”

Misunderstanding #3 – Clicker training is only for teaching tricks.

Sure, clicker training can be used for tricks, but it’s also used to train high-level military, police, search & rescue and service dogs, Mauger said.

Mullen said clicker training is also being used to teach marine mammals, zoo animals and more.

“So many wonderful, successful animal trainers use marker training,” she said.

What are some other clicker training mistakes or misconceptions?

Get That Mutt’s weekly news digest in your inbox:

Pin It

17 Readers Commented

Join discussion
  1. jan on May 1, 2014

    I have a clicker but i’ve never gotten into using it for training.

    However, if it would work for my cat Taki….I’m there!!

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on May 1, 2014

      Haha! Yeah, I’ve just never needed to use it for my dog. He seems to learn quickly without it. But my cat Beamer is very food obsessed and the clicker has helped me teach him to sit on command :)

  2. Jennifer Mauger on May 1, 2014

    Nice article! Cats are a lot of fun to clicker train too. I use it with both my dogs and cats :)

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on May 1, 2014

      Aww! What have you taught your cats to do?

      Thanks so much for contributing to the post!

      • Jennifer Mauger on May 1, 2014

        They know sit and come. Shira my rescue Bengal targets and have been working with her on riding a skateboard. Ari, my new rescue is learning to go to and stay on his mat as well as riding my shoulder.

        • Lindsay Stordahl Author on May 1, 2014

          So cute! I’m thinking about teaching my cat Beamer to stay on a mat.

  3. Cathy on May 1, 2014

    Mistake #3/Misunderstand #1 … If your dog *is* food motivated (and on dry kibble), dump the scoop of kibble into your treat pouch. I break out the high-value stuff for agility or learning complex new tricks, but for everyday training, she’ll get her breakfast (or half of it) one click at a time. My dog knows the word “homework” and gets excited when she sees the clicker come out.

  4. Marie on May 1, 2014

    My beginner’s obedience class two years ago indeed used clicker training and I was quite keen to try it. But I found it incredibly frustrating to have to add in the extra action of using the clicker in exactly the way I would normally use my voice. In the end I gave up and discussed with my trainer if I could just use a “click” word as I was losing all my enthusiasm for training through my frustration with the clicker. Luckily she was fine with that otherwise I most definitely would have dropped out of school (although I would have tried to find a clicker-free alternative asap). I don’t see a real difference between a clicker and a “click” word as long as you are consistent. Never ever will I touch a clicker ever again. Although I found (after I stopped using it for its intended goal) they are great for attracting a terriers attention (mistake #1 ).

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on May 1, 2014

      Ha! Great points, Marie. I can totally see what you are saying.

      I have worked with a professional trainer at a humane society who uses clicker training, and she actually suggested we (the shelter volunteers) start out by using a sound (like “yep!”) to mark the behavior. Her thought was this would be easier for us and that we could add the clicker later on. This made sense to me, and I do try to mark my own dog’s behaviors with “Yeah!” when he’s learning something new.

      We all gotta do what works :)

  5. Sean on May 1, 2014

    Biggest mistake is poor timing. You click at the moment the dog performs the desired behavior. People tend to click too late. You should be anticipating the behavior and ready to click the instant it is performed. For some dogs, an instant is all you get of the desired behavior, at first. If you have to find your clicker to click after the dog performed, it’s too late. So people wind up clicking at the wrong thing, which at best gives the dog no information about what they did that was correct and at worst teaches the dog the opposite of what you want (the second I stopped sitting, I got rewarded!).

  6. weliveinaflat on May 3, 2014

    love this article… definitely some great tips and correcting misconceptions :)

  7. Chris Fowler on May 3, 2014

    I think this is a great topic Lindsay, I like the way you present ideas for discussion, with
    an open mind, so refreshing in the dog world.
    I studied Clicker Training with Karen Pryor Clicker Training Academy, and I must
    admit upfront, I am a drop out! I am not an advocate of clicker training, nor am I opposed.
    I think it has a place, especially if one is trying to train a specific ‘trick’. Clicker Training is
    simply Operant Conditioning, it will work on almost any living creature.
    But, here’s the thing, dogs aren’t fish, or chickens. Dogs are a unique animal that has evolved
    to work with humans. Dogs relate to humans on a completely different level. So when it
    comes to behavioral issues, I find clicker training to be rather useless. That is why I am a
    KPCTA drop out, I wanted to understand why dogs do what they do, not train fish to jump thru
    hoops.
    Unfortunately, I still haven’t found the answer to my question. I have studied quite a few theories,
    just not many that seem to ring true.
    Thanks again for another interesting topic.

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on May 3, 2014

      It’s certainly not for everyone. So thanks for your honest opinion. I like clicker training and think it’s a lot of fun, but I usually fall back to just rewarding my dog with treats and praise for what I want while blocking the behaviors I don’t want. I don’t “mark” the behavior I’m looking for.

      Clicker training requires me to think differently about how I’m used to training dogs though, and I see that as a good thing because it forces me to be more creative and open minded.

      I think it’s great you gave it a try and also that you realized it’s just not for you.

  8. Linda on May 3, 2014

    I sometimes get the timing of the actual click wrong – and click too late. That’s obviously not very helpful for Alfie who won’t understand what I want him to do :-)

  9. BoingyDog on May 7, 2014

    This is great! I love using clickers with younger dogs. I’m having fun using with a puppy I’m working with! It certainly takes skill and coordination but can be so much fun for the dog!

HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY?