Clicker training is a form of positive reinforcement training. In different forms, this method of training works on all sentient beings. Once you learn to clicker train a dog, you will understand a lot more about what motivates people to learn.
Clicker training has its roots in operant conditioning which was developed by B. F. Skinner. A woman named Karen Pryor used clicker training on dolphins, and then about 20 years ago brought it into the world of dog training.
You don’t need to know anything about operant conditioning to learn how to clicker train, though.
Why Clicker Train?
Clicker Training uses positive reinforcement conditioning as a training tool for animals. The theory behind clicker training is that an animal will have a greater understanding of what is asked of him/her if he/she is encouraged positively to think through the problem themselves. Clicker training is like having a language translation tool through which you can communicate with your dog. You know all those TV dogs like Eddie on the show Frasier? They’re all clicker trained. Even all of the animals on Charlotte’s Web were clicker trained including the pigs. The horses in the “War Horses” movie were clicker trained. Bears are clicker trained. Chickens are the most common animals used in advanced operant conditioning classes.
Think about a life where all you had was an outpouring of love and appreciation whenever you did something right, and no punishment if you screwed up. What would you do? You’d continue to push yourself to excellence in the things that give you reward.
If you were punished every time you did something wrong and barely acknowledged when you did something right, you’d learn in order to avoid the punishment, sure, but punishment teaches by fear, not by love. Love and positive associations is what drives people and animals towards curiosity, learning, and innovation.
A puppy can learn with clicker training in about a minute, that’s how powerful it is.
How to Clicker Train
Step 1: Go to the pet store and buy a clicker and some bite-sized treats. You can buy these sausage things (Rollover or Red Barn are some examples) that can be cut up into bite-sized squares and used as training treats. Eventually you’ll learn what sorts of things your dog loves and use them. If your dog isn’t food motivated, you can throw a tennis ball as a treat, or scratch behind the ear, or play with a favorite toy. It’s important that whatever the treat is, that your dog loves it enough to do anything for it.
Step 2: Condition
Hold the clicker in one hand. Put the treats in a bag on your belt or in your pocket and toss the treat with the other hand.
With your dog, practice <click> then <treat>, <click> <treat>, <click> <treat>. This will condition your dog to understand that <click> means <treat> to follow. If you see your dog’s head whip around when he/she hears the <click>, you’re ready to start training.
Step 3: Train
1) Decide on behavior you want. Make it something your dog is already doing.
2) Wait for the behavior (as you learn more, you can lure behavior or shape it, but don’t worry about this for now)
3) <click> ONE TIME, EXACTLY at the moment your dog completes the behavior. If you’re clicking for “sit”, click the second that butt hits the floor. The timing of the <click> is where the training comes in, so this is important.
4) <click> means “sometime in the very near future you’re getting a treat”, so throw the treat down AFTER <clicking>. Remember, it’s not the treat that’s marking the behavior, but the <click>, so it doesn’t matter if your treat comes a couple of seconds later.
Step 4: Associate a Command with the Behavior
Once you have the behavior consistently, you can associate a command with it like “sit” by saying the command as you click, and still treating afterwards. Eventually you will find that your dog will sit on command, without the clicker. Phase out the clicker (but keep the treating) when the sit becomes 100% reliable on command. Go around the house, outside, in the bathroom, and use the command everywhere to “proof” it. Otherwise your dog will learn that the command only applies to a particular spot in the house.
That’s really all there is to clicker training. It ties into an entire philosophy on dog training that is success-oriented. There are very few dogs in this world that don’t adore this method of training. Here are some important rules:
Rule #1: <click> is ALWAYS followed by <treat>. Even if your <click> was accidental, throw the <treat> anyway.
Rule #2: Be 100% present to your dog when training. In order for this training to work, you have to catch EVERY SINGLE instance of a successful behavior. Once you’ve done it a couple of times, your dog will begin throwing behaviors at you, and if your mind is elsewhere, you can miss opportunities to reinforce what you’re looking for. If you see your dog doing the behavior later on and you don’t have your clicker, say “yes!” and then treat.
Rule #3: Clicker training is always about the success of your dog. If you’re not getting the behavior you want, lower your criteria until you can reward him/her. For instance, if I want my dog to go to the tissue box and pull a tissue, I’ll start off by clicking him every time he turns to face the box. Once I get that, I increase the criteria to facing the box and taking one step towards it. If I can’t get that, I’ll go back to clicking him every time he faces the box. Eventually he WILL take a step towards it because he’ll learn that what I want has something to do with the tissue box. If I’m attentive, I can catch that step with a <click><treat>, and now he will learn that the behavior is (1)turn towards box (2)take a step. And the training continues in this manner, always adding at the dog’s level of understanding, patiently waiting for him to try different things and think it through.
Rule #4: End every session on a good note. If it means going back to the basics and getting some good “sit”s, then do that. This leaves the dog with a happy ending to the game.
There’s a lot more to clicker training, and if you find you enjoy this, you can find classes and lots of YouTubes. Make sure you’re looking for people who have studied Karen Pryor. A lot of people teach clicker training or make YouTubes who haven’t really studied it, and they do it incorrectly.
Daily Prompt: Take a complicated subject you know more about than most people, and explain it to a friend who knows nothing about it at all.