Gundog owners often say to me “clicker training is all very well in your garden, but how can it work at a distance?”
Well, the answer or course is that once the dog is out of earshot, it can’t.
But that is not the point. In fact, it is missing the point altogether.
Because the clicker is a tool for developing and shaping new behaviours.
A tool for developing behaviours
We use the clicker to help create a ‘trained response’ in a gundog, by ‘marking’ desired behaviours.
Once the trained response, or required behaviour in response to your signal is established, the clicker becomes less important.
If you are asking your dog to sit to a blast on your whistle when he is fifty yards away, you will (or at least I hope you will) have built up to that distance gradually with lots of successful sits at different distances along the way.
At this point, your dog doesn’t need you to ‘mark’ the sit for him. You have created your trained response. He knows what he is being rewarded for when you walk up to him with a nice tasty treat, or throw him a dummy.
A reward marker
The purpose of the clicker is to identify or ‘mark’ the behaviour or action that we are intending to reward. This marker provides valuable information for the dog as it singles out for him, exactly what it is we want him to do.
Once the dog is repeatedly carrying out the desired action, we pair that action with a cue word. Once we get to the point where the dog has fully comprehended what it is he is being rewarded for, the clicker’s job is pretty much done, for that skill.
Yes we can use the clicker again to define different behaviours or to chain behaviours together, but adding long distances to a known command is achieved by gradually moving our goalposts, rather through dependence on reward markers.
If you want to have a go at clicker training your gundog, don’t be afraid that you will be shackled to a clicker for ever, or worry about how you will cope when the dog is far away. You may find it useful on occasions, but for the most part your dependence on the clicker once you get to this point, will be long gone.