What's this clicker training stuff, anyway? - By Sandra Case ABC Mentor Trainer & Owner of Positively Canine LLC
Friday, April 01, 2011 : 9:46:58 AM Updated Thursday, August 18, 2011 : 11:09:34 AM
Clicker training is one of the training tools routinely used at Positively Canine. It's not new, but many people are not familiar with it in dog training. Before it became popular for training pets, it was used to train marine mammals - large, intelligent animals that you can't put a leash on. It's also used to help zoo personnel do routine care for their animals.
The clicker, itself, is just a small object which emits a sharp click (much like clicker toys we had as kids). The way we use it is as a marker - both for a behavior and for a reward. It tells the dog "I like what you are doing this very instant", and "you're going to get something good for that." Something good can be anything that is rewarding to that particular dog. Treats, dinner, a walk, a toy, a snuggle, even sniffing a bush. The dog has to tell us what is rewarding. If it's not important to the dog it won't change behavior. When you click, you are "taking a picture" of the exact behavior you want. Thatís important information for your dog. And it is important to always pair the click with a reward of some sort. Otherwise it becomes just a meaningless sound.
What is Operant Conditioning? The use of the clicker is based in the science of Operant Conditioning (OC). Unlike Classical Conditioning (Pavlov) which works to change involuntary behaviors and emotional states, Operant Conditioning (Skinner) allows the learner to influence his environment and outcomes by offering, or not offering certain voluntary behaviors. Some people will tell you that clicker training "is" Operant Conditioning. In fact, it is only a part - based on one quarter or quadrant - Positive Reinforcement
Why use the clicker instead of my voice? For some reward based training, (luring with food for example) your voice is probably almost as useful as the clicker. In training where you are basically helping the dog or showing him what you want, you don't always need the precision of the click. The clicker is like a scalpel. Your voice is more like a butter knife. Both cut but they have different uses.
In clicker training, as with the rest of OC, the learner is discovering for himself what works and what doesn't. In that case, it pays to have a very precise way of communicating exactly when the learner is right. Our dogs hear us talk all of the time. Mostly when we talk, it is not information for them. The clicker is a very unique sound. It never sounds angry or worried or hoarse. It doesn't sound like other things the dog regularly hears. Some research has also suggested that the click is processed in a more primitive part of the brain, and so doesn't have to be "interpreted."
Will I always have to use a clicker? I tend to keep them around because I like to occasionally sharpen up a behavior, or teach a new one. But, once I have a behavior "on cue" (I can say the word or give the signal, the dog consistently does that behavior) I no longer need the absolute precision of a click, and my voice gives enough information.
If one quadrant is good, wouldn't the whole thing be better? Not necessarily. In clicker training, the dog is trying different things to find out what you will reinforce. You can teach more complex things than you can guide your dog into doing. The dog is a willing participant, and looking for a way to earn reward. If you start introducing aversive elements, which he wants to avoid, he is now conflicted. He doesn't know if a good thing is coming for the behavior, or if he may be punished for making a mistake.
There are people who call themselves "balanced" trainers who claim to use positives when the dog is learning, and then add aversive elements in the "proofing" stage. The problem I see with this is that learning is frequently not linear. There may be something in the environment which is confusing or distracting to the dog. New lessons may change the dog's understanding of things you thought he knew. A lack of practice may make a formerly known skill less clear. How do I really know if the dog is confused or being willfully disobedient? The answer is simple. If my dog has a history of reward for doing the right thing, why would he intentionally choose to do the wrong thing? On the other hand, if he's only working to avoid unpleasantness, he'll give me just as much as he thinks he has to. And if he never knows if he's trying to earn reward or avoid an aversive, he may be too stressed and confused to learn as effectively as I'd like.
It's not precisely clicker training, but sometimes I will use removing the opportunity for reward if the dog is doing something I don't want. For instance, if the dog is pulling on his leash, we won't go where he wants to go. Only loose leashes make my feet move in that direction.
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