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Targeting and Timing in Clicker Training Dogs

Ed Frawley


Marker training can be used to train just about any behavior. We will usually start with targeting. To start the training, you will need a targeting stick. Some targeting sticks will have a built-in clicker. I recommend you use those.

Targeting is very simple though it may take some practice to finally get it. You will need to extend the stick and hold it out away from your side. When the dog looks at it, Mark the moment (only one click) and reward the dog. Some targeting sticks will let you dispense food at the end of the stick.

Repeat the process until the dog knows to look at the stick when you hold it out.

As the dog takes a step toward the stick, mark and reward the step. Make sure these events don't happen at the same time. Mark two steps and then the dog sniffing the stick and then mark when he finally touches the end of the stick with his nose.

This may seem like a useless training session but this will have many applications. This concept is the same as teaching our dogs to go to their bed or their dog crate. You can use this as part of a link in a chain of behaviors from trimming nails or cleaning his ears.

Targeting will expand into a hand touch command--an important behavior in basic obedience training. This becomes a fun game to play with dogs but also a behavior we ask for, especially in situations where we don't want our dog getting distracted whether it's a person walking by or dead roadkill.

Timing of the Reward

To get the best results, your reward should come within half a second of the dog's action. Some people will say that the reward must come quicker than a second, others will say it must come within 1.5 seconds.

Although you may be able to reward your dog quickly, it is going to be difficult to do this in a consistent manner. This is where clickers come in. Clickers allow you to instantly mark the behavior then reward the dog. Once the dog understands the meaning of the click, he will associate it with the reward. This results in the dog learning things much more quickly.

People who train without clickers will have a much harder time training. The longer the delay between the behavior and the reward, the less of a chance their dog associates the behavior with the reward. Praising a dog 3 or even 2 seconds after the behavior can actually be praise for something else. This is why timing is so important in dog training. Clicker training is very effective as it helps build the bridge between a behavior and a reward.

Through repetition and experience, your dog will soon realize that when he hears a click, he knows he is going to get a reward for what he just did. This may take a few seconds but he knows the reward is coming and that he certainly wants to earn it. Clickers become very clear to dogs.

During your clicked training, don't feel like you have to get the reward as fast as possible. Your dog will start understanding the meaning of the click and will seeit as a part of the satisfaction.

Clicker training is a helpful concept of dog training, especially for exercises where your dog is a distance away from you. That distance gives you the time needed to reward the dog so that he understands why he is getting the reward.

Learning to Time the Mark

Learning the correc timing is simple. It may not be an easy task but it is very simple. The easiest way to approach timing is to start thinking like a dog. Think of it like this: your dog takes mental snapshots of what exactly he's doing the instant you press the clicker. They will relate that sound to the snapshot they just took.

To really understnad this, grab a friend while you are in a training session with your dog. Tell him/her that every time he hears a click, tell him to take a picture of your dog at that exact same moment. Have them focus on the click, not on what the dog is doing. After the session is over, you can evaluate what it is that's going through your dog's mind when he hears your clicker. The pictures taken are what your dog thinks he is being rewarded for. You might be surprised at your timing.

The correct time to mark is the instant the dog meets the criteria of the particular training step or behavior.

Here's an example: You're teaching the hand touch, where your dog is expected to touch his nose to your hand when you hold your hand out. You will need to mark the very instant his nose touches your hand, not 3 or 4 seconds later.

Other examples: When training the SIT, the click should come the instant the dog's butt touches the ground. Not 2 seconds later. Or when you are training the DOWN, the click should occur when the dog's belly touches the ground--not 5 seconds later.

A delayed mark will cause the dog to believe he is being rewarded for the duration of staying down, not the actual movement of staying down. Trainers who consistently mark the DOWN with poor timing will have dogs who go down slower and slow because dogs believe it is a "down stay" and not a "DOWN." They are expecting a reward for staying down, not for quickly dropping to the ground which is what you want.

Now you might be questioning why it is bad for your dog to "stay down" in which I would like to clarify that it isn't bad at all. We just use very different markers for that. The general CLICK will be the trigger for the down. But another marker term such as "GOOD" is what should keep the dog in his down position.

If you are marking correctly, then hearing the click becomes the trigger for the dog. He will get in a down position upon hearing ir or perhaps sit or successfully touches your hand with his nose. We will later on discuss adding duration to a behavior by using another different marker: GOOD.