Clicker training is a methodology which has become very popular in dog training over the last 10 years or so. The clicker itself is a little box which makes a click sound when pressed. It becomes a marker for the behavior that the trainer is looking for and also that goodies or other reward are on their way. Training this way is continuing to evolve with more research and understanding of animal behavior. It is useful to attend a couple of classes or seminars to get the basics down and to learn the more complicated scientific behavioral concepts if you are interested in the full philosophy.
I started with luring my first puppy into the correct position with food and then gradually pairing that with the desired command word. This works great for teaching a puppy basic sits and downs, but free-shaping with the clicker goes one step further, the dog learns to be aware of his own body. When you lure a dog into position, he is thinking about the food rather than what he is doing. When you use free-shaping, you either wait for him to take up the position naturally and let him work out what you are rewarding, or you break down a more complicated sequence into small pieces and gradually ask for more each time. It is also possible to combine techniques for different types of training.
Clicker training is great fun, for both dog and trainer, and as the dog learns to offer more and more behaviors, he learns faster and faster.
One of the most important concepts to teach a competition dog is focus. The clicker is an easy way to teach this, because you can catch the behavior you want precisely when it happens. It takes some practise to get the timing just right but the results are well worth it. You also need to be very clear about what you are trying to train and break it down appropriately for your dog. Never be in a hurry to train something new. If you are getting a lot of failures, you may be pushing too fast, take a step back and think about what you are asking for. You must have a high rate of reinforcement so that the training can progress.
Clicker training gives the handler a chance to watch the dog's reactions, and natural inclinations, so they can tailor training to each individual dog. For instance, when teaching articles to two pups recently, one went from sniffing the article to biting it, the other went from sniffing to pawing the article. The first pup investigates things much more with his mouth, which should make the retrieve easy! The second likes to play with items with her paws. Once the pup pawed the article, I rewarded that, and soon she tried a play bow, and then a down. After 4 short sessions of 10 repetitions, she had the basic idea of lying near the article. Then I just had to teach her that the article must be between her paws.