Clicker Training

Clicker training is a behaviour modification method that draws on the principles of operant conditioning to train animals. It was devised in the mid-1940s but did not become widely known until the 1990s. It is so called because it usually employs a clicker – a plastic box with a mechanical noisemaker which works by clicking – to train the animal.

What is operant conditioning?

Operant conditioning is a form of behaviour modification that relies on our natural tendency to repeat actions that have positive consequences and avoid those that result in negative consequences. In this method, the environment is changed according to behaviour, so that desirable behaviour is reinforced while undesirable actions are discouraged. Instead of manipulating reflexes, operant conditioning focuses on changing voluntary behaviour and is a great way to train animals to follow commands.

The benefits of using a clicker

For animals to make the connection between a behaviour and its consequence, the latter must immediately follow the former, and that too very consistently. Dogs cannot understand or connect the “logic” between so many different events – a command (Sit), a behaviour (Sitting down) and a positive event (getting a treat) – unless they occur in rapid and repeated succession. Even a few seconds between the behaviour and the reward can keep him from understanding that it’s a consequence of the behaviour and not an independent event. Moreover, using a different reward every time can also confuse the animal in the beginning and slow down the process.

Clicker training has two significant advantages:

  • It always makes the same, distinct sound, so that the dog can quickly identify it and connect it to whatever precedes and follows it.
  • As opposed to getting a treat out of the pocket or setting down a bowl of tasty food, clicking can instantly follow the desired behaviour and help the dog make the connection between the two.

How clicker training works

The fundamental process of clicker training is simple. It occurs in these two steps:

First, associate the ‘click’ with a pleasant experience. Every time the clicker sounds, the dog gets a treat or other reward. This is also known as “pairing”. He very quickly begins to make the connection and the sound of the click becomes part of the reward,  thus a positive experience.

Then, use the click as positive reinforcement of the desired behaviour. When the dog sits on command, clicking immediately lets him know that sitting was the right thing to do – because it leads to reward. In this part of the training, you have two options:

  • Wait for the dog to offer the right behaviour on his own. This technique does not work well for all dogs, but might be perfectly suited to extroverted dogs who are consistently motivated to seek possible reward. Such dogs will offer a variety of behaviours on their own and the right behaviour can be marked with the click, which is then followed by a treat.
  • You can also induce the desired behaviour by using the treat beforehand. Show the treat, use the command, and use the click right after the right behaviour, before giving the treat. This method is quicker, but remember to wean your dog off the treat slowly.

When teaching commands that may be a little more complicated, use the clicker to reward incremental steps of the behaviour, aiming for greater accuracy over time. So, if you are teaching your dog to lift up its paw and place it on yours, you might begin by rewarding a lift of the paw and then slowly raise the bar. The motivation of the clicker will keep your dog trying and he will soon succeed in giving you the right response.

Image credit: gruenerapfel

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