Clicker training in a nutshell

This method has obviously gotten its name from the small device, the clicker. However,  you don’t actually need one to train in this way. The basic idea or theory behind clicker training, is operant conditioning, which means simply that we teach the animal that when it does something (that we wish it to do) it gets rewarded. Hence, the method is often also called positive reinforcement training.

There are four types of consequences to a behavior:

1) something good happens or is presented 🙂
2) something good ends or is taken away 😦
3) something bad happens or is presented 😦
4) something bad ends or is taken away 🙂

(1) and (4) are experience as rewards whereas (2) and (3) function as punishments. Hence, it is important to realise that when we talk about punishments in the context of operant conditioning, we don’t only mean things that cause physical pain, discomfort, fear or intimidation.

In clicker training the consequences used most often are (1) and (2). When the animal does something desirable, something good happens, for instance he gets a treat (1). When he fails to do what we want, we remove the possibility of the reward (2).

What about the clicker then?
The clicker in clicker training is used to mark a desired behavior. Contrary to common ideas, it is NOT a reward in itself, but simply something that tells the animal he has done something right and is soon to be rewarded. In order for a clicker to work, the dog must first be conditioned to its sound. Remember the Pavlov’s dog who started salivating when it heard a certain bell ring? That is what will eventually happen to your dog, when he hears the clicker sound (or any other sound or word you choose to use). Basically then, we will teach the dog that the sound of the clicker always means that food is on its way. As I mentioned before, the actual clicker is not necessary, but you can easily use a (short) word such as “good” or “yess”, or even make a clicking sound with your tongue. Any sound is fine as long as it is something that you don’t normally use with the dog.

Conditioning the clicker
This is easy. Simply sit down with your dog, clicker in one hand treats in the other. Start by clicking, and immediately afterwards giving your dog a treat. The dog does not need to do anything, since at this stage we are simply creating a link between the sound and food. Repeat ten times take a little break (half a minute or a minute) and do the same thing again 10 times. Depending on the dog after two or three sessions the dog should have realised that the sound means treats. You can test this at any time, when your dog is not paying particular attention to you. Just click and see if your dog looks at you expecting a treat. If he does, you have succesfully conditioned him to the clicker sound!

Using clicker in your training
Once the conditioning is done, you can start using the clicker in training. As I said earlier the idea behind using a clicker, is to be able to quickly and accurately tell the dog when it is doing what we want it to do. Since us humans are fairly slow in our movements trying to give the dog a treat at the exact moment it’s doing the right thing, would most likely fail. We would miss the right moment by perhaps one or two second and the dog would think that it got rewarded for something it did right after the “right” thing. If we for instance teach the dog to sit. It sits and immediately after would get up. We would most likely be ready with the treat by the time the dog was standing and would end up rewarding it, not for sitting, but for getting up! The clicker allows as to mark the exact moment the dogs rear end touches the ground and this way it speeds to learning process enormously, since the dog does not need to be guessing what it was it got the treat for.

Although clicker is very helpful when teaching new behaviours, it is not necessary anymore, after the dog has learned the behavior. So you do not need to carry a clicker around with you for the rest of  your life. The same is true for the treats. Although in the beginning it is important to keep the treats coming quickly and often, it is equally important to gradually reduce the amounts of treats, replace some of them with praise. Once the dog knows the behavior you should stop rewarding him every time he performs a desired behaviour, and only give the treats randomly. So, unlike people commonly think, you won’t need to pack your pockets full of sausages everytime you take your dog for a walk!

If you want to know more, check out  this post in “Barks & Recreation” -blog, on the most common myths and misunderstandings about and around clicker training.

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