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★ The first step in clicker training is to teach the animal that the clicker sound means that they will get a primary reinforcer, usually food. To do this, some trainers "charge" or "load" the clicker. To do this the trainer clicks the clicker and immediately thereafter gives the animal a reward, usually a tasty treat, one small enough to be consumed almost instantly. Some animals tend to learn the association much more quickly than others. Progress may be tested by waiting until the dog's attention is elsewhere and then clicking. If the dog immediately looks toward the trainer as though expecting a reward, it is likely that the dog has made the association.
Other trainers, including Bob Bailey and the ABE Trainers, simply start training a behavior and following desired approximations with a click. ABE conducted experiments that demonstrated that for their purposes, where they may be training many animals at the same time, this method was more efficient. Today many clicker trainers use this method of introducing the clicker.
After that, the trainer uses the clicker to mark desired behaviors as they occur. At the exact instant the animal performs the desired behavior, the trainer clicks and promptly delivers a food reward or other reinforcer. One key to clicker training is the trainer's timing; clicking slightly too early or too late rewards and therefore may reinforce whatever behavior is occurring at that instant. The saying goes, "you get what you click for."
Clicker trainers often use the process of "shaping," which means gradually transforming a specific behavior into the desired behavior by rewarding successive approximations to it. A successive approximation is "a behavioral term that refers to gradually molding or training an organism to perform a specific response by reinforcing responses that are similar to the desired response." Clicker trainers learn to split behavior instead of lumping it, i.e. to look for and reward small steps in the right direction rather than waiting for the whole, "perfect" behavior to appear on its own. It is important to create opportunities for the animal to earn rewards very frequently. A reinforcement rate of one click/treat (C/T) every two to three seconds is common among professional dog trainers. Criteria for receiving the click is tightened gradually, at the rate the animal is comfortable with and so that it will remain successful.