A clicker is a small plastic box with a metal strip that makes a clicking sound when pushed and released. A clicker or other noise-maker (snapping your fingers or jingling a chain) serves as a bridge between the dog's action and a reward. You may also know clicker training by its scientific term of operant conditioning: the tendency to repeat an action that has a positive result.
Clicker training works by indicating to your Lab what behaviors you like and signals that you will “Pay” for those behaviors with something the dog likes — usually a treat, but also petting or praise. For instance, you might click every time you see your Lab chewing a toy. Then give him a treat. After you've done this a few times, you'll have a dog that grabs a chew toy every time he sees you coming. At this point, you can add a word or a phrase that identifies the action you want, such as “good chew” or “good toy.”
The clicker (a conditioned reinforcer in scientific parlance) is paired with a reward, such as a treat (a primary reinforcer). By clicking when your Lab does something right — not before, not after, but during the action — and following the click with a treat or other reward, you teach him not only what behavior you want, but also that a reward will follow.
In training, timing is everything. The benefit of a clicker is that it gives instant reinforcement of a behavior. Giving a click is much faster than saying “Good dog!” A clicker also allows you to shape precise behaviors that might otherwise be difficult to teach — tilting the head, lifting a paw, or wagging the tail on command, for instance. You won't need those behaviors in obedience trials or other dog sports, but they're great for trick training or getting your Lab to pose pretty for a photo.
Three female yellow Labs posing for a photo.