Features March 2001 Issue

Pickin’ Clickers

The evolution of a fantastic training tool.

First, there was the box clicker – a strip of steel encased in a small plastic box that makes a resounding CLICK! when pressed on the free end of the steel strip. The clicker, used to mark the instant of desired behavior and communicate to the dog that he has just earned a reward, has become a familiar training tool in the last decade. (See “There’s More Than One Way,” WDJ July 1998; “Doggedly Clickin’ Chickens,” December 1998; “Tricks for Clicks,” May 2000.)

These wonderful tools – inexpensive, sturdy (although not indestructible – they can rust) are incredibly powerful, though they don’t require even an ounce of force to be exerted on the dog. Massachusetts-based trainer Karen Pryor deserves thanks for this. It was she who launched the dog training industry’s interest in clicker-training with her unassuming and now-famous paperback book, Don’t Shoot the Dog, published in the late 1980s and re-released in 1999. The only drawback of the original box clicker was that it was hard to hold onto with hands that were covered in dog spit and hotdog slime. We can thank human ingenuity for solving that problem, and for the slew of clicker innovations that have been developed in the last decade, each better or more fun than the last.

If you are still struggling with dropping the original box clicker on the ground when you reach into your pocket for treats for your dog, you are in for a treat yourself. You are about to discover the wonderful world of clickers for the new millenium.

Clickers come in a wide range of styles,
ûfrom plain box clickers to fully accessorized
ûmodels. Most are inexpensive (less than $1),
ûalthough the accessories can add up.

These clickers are unrated
Because of our extremely biased attitude about clickers – we’ve never met one we didn’t like; we’ve simply met some we like more than others! – we’re going to forego our usual zero-to-four-paws ratings for these products. We’ll simply present you with a chronological history of the clicker, which has evolved (and continues its evolution) with numerous helpful features; choose the models that suit your training style. You can’t go wrong – only one of the clickers featured here costs more than $5; most are much less.

Clicker Basics
Like a beloved old workhorse, the original box clicker is still serviceably sound. It clicks when you push on it. In the beginning, that was all we asked from our clickers. Soon trainers began ordering personalized box clickers with their business information printed on the back.

Then someone solved the clicker-drop problem by drilling a hole in the corner of the clicker and running a string or elastic hairband through it, which could be slipped over the trainer’s wrist.

Next, an enterprising entrepreneur took the concept one step further and produced the tab clicker. At one end, the tab clicker has a little plastic tab with a hole in it. Two elastic hairbands made it a simple matter to dangle the tab clicker from your wrist, thus eliminating the clicker-drop problem. (Run one elastic band through the tab hole, then back through the band itself to secure it to the tab. Then take the second elastic band, run it through the first, and back through itself. Insert hand through second band. Presto!)

The tab clicker helped owners become more coordinated and improve the timing of their clicks and treats, since they could now drop the clicker with impunity in order to deliver the goods promptly to the waiting canine. When they needed the clicker again, it was right there on their wrist, instead of somewhere on the ground.

Humans, however, are never satisfied with make-do when a marketable product is inventable! Soon enough we had the wrist clicker and the finger clicker. Then someone realized that a metal split-ring fits neatly through the clicker-tab hole. That person threaded a plastic coil (like those used to hold keys) though the ring, and the official wrist clicker was born. Before you could say “ponytail,” trainers all over the country had abandoned their elastic hairbands and were leashing their clickers to their arms with bright, neon-colored wrist coils.

The “Wrist-O-Click” includes a plastic coil and
ûa whistle.

Gary Wilkes, an early clicker trainer from near Phoenix, Arizona, took this concept one step further, and added a whistle onto the coil of his “Wrist-O-Click.” The whistle can be used either as a long-distance attention getter or a long-distance reward marker. Wilkes came up with yet another variation – the “Redi-Click” – a box clicker with a small elastic loop attached to one end, just big enough to fit over the trainer’s thumb or finger. This keeps the clicker handily in the palm of your hand rather than dangling from your wrist.

Sometimes, however, the wrist or finger clicker gets in the way. It dangles freely from the arm or hand, and can thump your dog in the head at inopportune moments. There’s nothing more frustrating than accidentally punishing your dog by bonking her in the head with the clicker when you were reaching to pet, praise and reward her because she finally offered you that elusive behavior you have been working so hard to get.

Dedicated clicker thinkers quickly came up with a viable solution to the clicker-bonk challenge.

The next thing we knew, we had the clip-on clicker. Still incorporating the plastic coil technology, the clip-on clicker uses a straight coil rather than a loop. One end attaches to the split ring, the other to a small metal clip that fastens neatly to your belt loop or other handy ring. The clicker is still kept leashed and under control, but now resides at your waist instead of on your wrist. It takes a little bit of trainer adaptation to get used to reaching for your hip (“Smile when you say that, Pardner!”) instead of just grabbing for the wrist clicker hanging below your hand, but it’s a behavior change that’s relatively easy to accomplish if you put your mind to it. The “no-bonking” pay-off is well worth it.

But the inventors and entrepreneurs weren’t done with the clicker yet. Until very recently, all of the clicker innovations were relatively low-tech, with few moving parts. That changed in the year 2000, with the introduction of the Retract-O-Click.

The “Cadillac” of Clickers
By far the greatest leap forward in clicker technology to date, the Retract-O-Click comes attached to its own miniature retractable leash that coils itself up into a tiny round plastic case. The case is mounted on a small alligator clip that easily grabs onto your belt loop, pocket, or any other handy loop or flap of fabric. When not in use, the clicker zips itself neatly into its case and sits there snugly, just waiting for you grab it and pull it out again.

Doggone Good’s “Clicker Bait Bag.”

While the other changes that occurred over the years were pleasant improvements to the basic clicker, in our opinion, the Retract-O-Click is a “must have.” When they try it out for the first time, the reaction of most trainers is a huge grin and the comment, “I love it!”

Kermit’s contributions
The only clickers that we’ve seen that depart from the box design are metal or plastic frog clickers. The metal frog has a tiny hole drilled in his posterior and comes with a key chain and split ring attached. Froggie opens his mouth when you click his tail, and emits a click at a much higher pitch than the standard clicker, which makes it a nice option for dogs who are a little intimidated by the resounding CLICK! of the box clicker.

Plastic frogs are not always available, but when they are, they’re very inexpensive, and lots of fun as giveaways. Having a birthday party for Bowser, or taking Sheba to school for show-and-tell? The little frogs are great party favors, and make a huge impression on Bobby’s classmates. They are not very durable, so don’t expect them to last as long as your regular clickers. They do make a comparatively small click!, and are also useful with dogs who are afraid of loud clicks.

The best accessory
Finally, we would be remiss if we did not tell you about our favorite clicker accessory, Doggone Good’s clicker bait bag: This pet products maker (best known for its portable Cabana Crate) has created a well-designed and -constructed nylon bait bag (to hold your dog’s most beloved training treats) that has an added feature – a clicker-sized pocket that your most beloved training tool can snuggle in when you aren’t using it. No more lost clicker woes – if you can remember where you left your bait bag, you’ll know where your clicker is.

Also With This Article
Click here to view "A 'Remote Reward Marker' Paired with a Negative Application."
Click here to view "Where to Buy Clickers and Clicker Accessories."

-By Pat Miller

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