"Clicker Training" is a slang term used to describe a way of training animals that has become increasingly popular in the last decade because of its gentle methods. The scientific term for it is operant conditioning.
What is Operant Conditioning?
Operant conditioning is the way any animal (including the human kind) interacts with and learns from its environment. Simply put, an animal tends to repeat an action that has a positive consequence and tends not to repeat one that has a negative consequence. Trainers can take advantage of that natural tendency by providing positive reinforcement following an action that they want the animal to repeat. In order for the animal to connect the positive reinforcement to the behavior that he is doing, the reinforcement must happen AS the behavior is occurring, not afterwards. The actual reinforcement can't always be gotten to the animal at that precise instant, however.
Trainers needed to find another way of letting the animal know that he was doing the right thing, so they began using a conditioned reinforcer. A conditioned reinforcer is anything that wouldn't ordinarily be something the animal would work to get. A primary reinforcer, on the other hand, is something that the animal automatically finds reinforcing, such as food or water. When a conditioned reinforcer is paired with a primary reinforcer, they become of equal importance to the animal. Enter the clicker as a conditioned reinforcer.
The Clicker is generally a small plastic box with a metal strip that makes a sharp, clicking sound when pushed and released. It can be any sound really. What makes the clicker so effective its value is that the unique sound doesn't get lost in the babble of words we are constantly throwing at our dogs. It is faster than saying "Good dog!" and allows the trainer to mark with great precision the behavior for which the dog is being reinforced. Paired with something the animal finds very reinforcing such as food or playtime with a toy, the clicker becomes a powerful tool for shaping behavior.
Leading the Way offers all level of clicker training....
When you shape behavior, you reinforce closer and closer approximations of the actual behavior you are looking for. For instance, if you are trying to teach your dog to "shake hands" you would click and treat at first if he simply raised his paw just a bit off the ground. As you progressed, you would stop reinforcing a slight raise of the paw. You would now require that the paw is raised higher, and then the paw would have to come towards you, etc. Breaking the behavior down into TINY steps allows progress to be made quickly.