What is Clicker Training?
Clicker Training was first developed by a B.F. Skinner, arguably the most celebrated psychologist since Freud. He first fully defined reward based training in 1938 and his work, while based on human education, went on to influence animal learning (most teachers have heard of Skinner!).
Clicker training is completely punishment free, it is easy to learn and enjoyable for humans and dogs and can be applied in any canine situation. Clicker training is used for puppy training, rescue dogs, dogs who have been mistreated, dogs with aggression issues, show dogs, competition dogs, working dogs, assistance dogs—the list goes on and on.
The click of the clicker means three things to a dog
- You got it right
- A treat is coming
- You’re finished
The clicker therefore, acts like a camera to the dog, taking a snapshot in his short term memory of the exact moment he achieved the correct behaviour. Once a dog understands that, if they value the reward enough, they are then motivated to repeat the behaviour and continue learning.
Why use a clicker, why not just titbits?
It is easier to get the timing correct with a clicker when practised and timing is critical to a dog’s understanding of their training. Dogs relate the reward to what they are currently doing or what they have just done – before doing anything else.
- The clicker is more precise than a verbal marker like ‘good dog’ and there is emerging scientific evidence to suggest that the sound is processed more effectively by the brain.
- The clicker is ideal for distance work, also for children to learn and for people with physical disabilities as one doesn’t need to be right near the dog to reward the correct behaviour.
- The clicker is distinctively different to other sounds so cannot become diluted by daily language like ‘well done’.
- The clicker is consistent in tone and pitch and isn’t subject to moods like owners!
- Clicker trained dogs tend to be happier, more enthusiastic and bright eyed and have great self confidence, as well as a closer bond with their owner(s).
Do I always have to use the clicker?
The clicker is for teaching new things, you only need it to teach your dog what you want and what that is called. When your dog responds to the word you are teaching reliably and quickly, you can fade the clicker.
Do I always have to use food?
It is very important to continue the training process, until your dog will respond to all the verbal cues (used to be called commands) automatically and everywhere. Training often fails because people don’t continue the training process as follows:
- Teach with the clicker and food (or play)
- Fade the clicker, continue with verbal cues and food
- Gradually fade the food so your dog works harder for less food
Won’t praise be enough?
Not usually, most people are motivated to work for money and whatever they get out of their job (friendships, satisfaction etc), dogs are no different. Not many people work for the love of the job alone and those that do are highly motivated by whatever they get out of the job. It’s all about motivation and most dogs are motivated by food and play. They enjoy praise of course, but it’s not usually enough on its own, but equally don’t forget to warmly praise your dog as well as feed him and play with him.
What happens when my dog gets it wrong?
Dogs have no concept of right and wrong, only rewarding and not rewarding. They don’t have morals, and therefore can’t look ‘guilty’. There is a positive solution for any canine behaviour that conflicts with what people want.When actually training, clicker training involves nothing negative whatsoever, not even verbal reprimands. Any form of punishment is in conflict with the scientific principles of clicker training. The worst that can happen for the dog is that the click, and therefore the treat, doesn’t come. The lack of reward will discourage repetition and encourage the dog to experiment and try out new things, without fear of reprisal, which in turn fully develops his or her personality.
Get the behaviour (lots of ways to do this)
Mark it with the clicker
Before Getting Started
Points to be aware of:
- The click is the action of pushing and releasing the clicker so it is actually ‘click-click’.
- A click guarantees that a treat will follow, even if you click by mistake or at the wrong time.
- One reward, one click, never multiple click. Give multiple treats for an extra special response, but only 1 click.
- Never use the clicker to get the dog’s attention - this could adversely affect all of your training efforts.
- Timing Counts – your dog will learn much faster if he can count on you to mark the right behaviour.
Organising Training Sessions
- Choose times when you have as few distractions as possible, to begin with.
- Choose a time when your dog is awake and alert.
- Choose a place in the home where he is comfortable to begin with (see below).
- Make sure you have everything you need to hand.
- Make sure your dog has been to the toilet and hasn't just eaten.
- Make sessions very short to begin with – literally 5 minutes at a time, but several times a day.
- Build up the length gradually, always finish the session with your puppy or dog wanting more, never leave it till he's bored and wanders off. There can be seconds between full attention and boredom.
- Don't overload him. Be aware of all the other things he is learning as well, like house training.
- Teach one thing at a time in each short session to begin with and only practise different cues in one session when he has fully mastered each one.
- When he has got the idea, practise in different rooms in the house and when confident, move into the garden.
- Next move farther afield, slowly adding in distractions. Visiting friends, going for a walk etc.
- Don't progress too quickly, or add in too many distractions until he can cope and don't allow him to fail!
A release word is invaluable in training. It just means, 'exercise over', or 'go and play'. Choose any word or phrase that suits you e.g. 'ok', 'good' and replace the clicker with this when you are ready to phase it out.
Kerri Bee is a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (no.0999). She runs training classes and one-to-one consultations in West Pembrokeshire. Visit her website. http://www.windrushdogsforlife.co.uk
Editor's note ... American, Karen prior a well known dog trainer was one of the major pioneers of clicker training. She started out as a dolphin trainer and found that using a whistle with marine mammals was a fantastic way to shape their behaviour and she developed the work with other land based animals using the clicker. Her book Clicker Training Dogs (ISBN: 978-1860542824) is a fantastic introduction to this method of dog training. Also checkout her website www.clickertraining.com