What is Clicker Training, and How Did it Start?
Clicker training is a “positive reinforcement” method of training dogs and other animals, and incorporates the use of a “clicker”-a small mechanical noise maker-to mark and reinforce the desired behavior in the Animal. The clicker is used during the initial(acquisition) phase of training a new behavior to help the animal recognize the goal behavior or action.
At some point in the 1940’s, during military research, Keller Breland and Marian Bailey (as graduate students under psychologist and eminent behaviorist B.F. Skinner) came up with the idea of using a clicker noise in their training of pigeons. They developed the technique because traditional methods of praise and reward did not notify an animal of their success with enough promptness or precision to make correct mental associations needed for efficient training. At least 140 species including whales, bears, lions, chickens, dogs, cats, and even humans have been successfully trained using some variation of clicker training.
Preparing Your Dog for Clicker Training
Before diving into training, your dog must learn that the click sound represents a positive outcome. When your dog hears the clicking noise, they must understand that this is good, and that they have performed the desired action or behavior. The process of building this association in your dog’s mind is called “charging” or “loading” the clicker.
To charge the clicker, you simply click it once, and right away reward your dog with a small treat; preferably something small enough that he/she doesn’t need to stop and spend time chewing. Some dogs will learn this association faster than others. If you want a way to find out how well you’re doing in your clicker charging, try waiting until your dog’s attention is not on the clicker, the treats, or you, and then click. If he/she looks at you in expectation of a treat, you’re probably good to go. You know your K9 pal best, and will be the best judge of when it’s time to move forward.
Starting the Clicker Training Process
When you’re ready to begin your dog’s training, you simply “mark” a desired behavior from your dog with a click. You must be very precise and prompt with your click so your dog understands what behavior he/she is receiving the positive reinforcement for. Clicking too early or too late may cause your dog to believe that it was a different action he/she was being praised for. In the early stages at least, it is probably best to also continue delivering small food rewards directly after clicking.
Shaping Dog Behavior with Clicker Training
Many trainers will gradually “shape” a dog’s behavior into the final desired trick or behavior. This is done by click-marking close approximations to the desired action, and successively becoming more strict with the criteria necessary for a click. The term for this process is “Successive Approximation”. What you’re essentially doing is breaking the training of a complex trick into steps, and teaching them to your dog in order, one at a time. In this process it is important to train at a rate that is comfortable for your dog, and to give him/her as many reward opportunities as possible.
Common Concerns and Objections Regarding Clicker Dog Training
Many opponents of clicker training will cite the following possible stumbling blocks, however experienced trainers believe that while these concerns are not to be ignored, they can be easily overcome.
The dog will always require the clicker in order to perform the trick
The clicker is not intended to maintain a certain behavior. Once the dog has learned to perform a certain action on command, clicker use can and should be discontinued.
During public training, my dog will not know what clicker to listen to.
While this can be a small issue at first, most participants in clicker training classes find that dogs very quickly are able to discern between which clicker is the right one. It only takes a few times not receiving a reward after a click for the dog to ignore the clicks of others.
Clicker training will make my dog fat from all the treats
It’s important to remember that the size of treat you’re providing should be fairly minuscule; like the size of a pea for a Labrador Retriever, and even smaller for smaller breeds. If you’re still worried, simply keep track of how much you’re giving, and subtract that approximate amount from your dog’s normal meals. You can also try using incentives other than food like, say, a rubber ball if your dog is really into rubber balls.
Clicker training won’t work in noisy environments.
This can be a problem. Ideally, outside distractions should be incorporated gradually towards the end of initial training.
My dog may end up only ever obeying whoever has treats on them.
This becomes a problem when the trainer uses “Lure” training, and only ever uses food as the reinforcer. When using food as the reinforcer, it should only be visible once the proper action has been performed, and the click has been sounded. The dog should not be tantalized by the food before the command is given.
Clickers may not be loud enough for many of the settings I need to train in.
There’s nothing magical about clickers. It’s merely a sound used to mark an action. If clicking is not loud enough, simply use something louder like a whistle or horn. For deaf dogs, often a flash of light is used. Whatever you use, just make it the same every time.
Some dogs will be frightened of or sensitive to clicker noise.
If this is shown to be the case, simply use a different marker. Even a specific word will do as long as it’s the same one, spoken the same way each time.
Where Can I Learn More About Clicker Training for Dogs?
There are many books available on the topic of positive reinforcement training. Karen Pryor and Pat Miller are some of the more popular authors of books on the topic. Pryor is often credited with inventing clicker training, however her role in the practice was more so in popularizing it and further developing it for use with domesticated house pets. Miller is a certified professional dog trainer and behavior consultant. Her work doesn’t seem focus just on clicker training, but on positive reinforcement training in general. These authors’ more popular books are listed below, but it is important to note that I have not read any of them myself. They’re being referenced here only as examples of popular literature on the topic of clicker training.
Books??! Aw, Aren’t There Videos I Can Watch?
Yes. Here’s a start.