Clicker training has become an increasingly popular technique in pet training. The behavioral laws that support the effectiveness of clicker training have always governed the way animals interact with their environment but the widespread use of a handheld clicker to make training our dogs and cats more efficient and effective has really captured the public interest over the last decade or so.
The clicker is a small box containing a metal lip that makes a clicking sound when pressed. Some clickers today are sold with wristbands attached so that they are always handily available. Others have modernized designs but the key feature is simply that the device make a clear, distinct noise when pressed. (Some trainers even prefer to use a clicking pen or bottle cap to the same effect.)
The sound means nothing to most animals when they first hear it. We must teach them that the click sound predicts the delivery of food or other rewards for a job well done. When we have a clear way to “mark” good behavior – that is, to tell our dog, for example, that we like the behavior he just performed and now he will earn a reward, or reinforcer, for it – we have opened up a line of communication that is highly effective in a variety of training situations.
To transform the click from a neutral, meaningless sound to a positive, communicative one, we begin by associating it with food. Get a pocketful of tiny, high-value treats. Click the clicker and immediately provide a treat from your other hand. Wait 10 seconds and repeat. Provide about 20 click-treat pairings in this way. Then repeat from a different room or chair of your home. Over the next several days, provide several sessions a day like this, in various locations in and outside your home.
Throughout this initial training, you must remember to provide a treat EVERY TIME you click the clicker, and to always click BEFORE you treat. You also must provide the treat IMMEDIATELY after you click. In this way, the clicker soon becomes a conditioned reinforcer, meaning it will reward whatever the dog is doing the moment he hears the clicker.
Some reinforcers are called primary reinforcers – these are things that animals work for because they are biologically prepared to find those things appealing or satisfying. For example, food and water serve as reinforcers for all animals because these things are necessary for survival. If animals were not motivated to obtain food and water, they would not last very long and would not have survived to produce offspring. Other reinforcers are learned within our lifetime. For example, money means nothing to a baby. Yet soon we all learn to work in exchange for money because we learn that money provides us access to other things, including primary reinforcers like food, water, and shelter. At that point, money has become what’s called a conditioned reinforcer. In the same way, we teach our dogs in clicker training that the click promises access to food, and thus the click becomes a reinforcer in itself, rewarding whichever behavior produced it.
Praise also works as a conditioned reinforcer with many dogs. Yet praise can be less useful than a clicker in training for several reasons. First, we talk to our dogs all the time, both when we are happy and when we are angry with them. We may talk to them before we provide positive things (like treats or belly rubs) but we also talk to them before providing negative things (like nail clipping or leaving them home alone). In this way, our dogs have learned that our words can mean many things, both good and bad. The clicker, on the other hand, is used in only one specific way and thus is less ambiguous. Second, the click stands out more distinctly from ambient noise in the environment than does our voice. Because it is a short, crisp noise, it easily garners a dog’s attention against the din of other noises that may be present in any given training context. Its short and distinct quality also makes it ideal for marking and rewarding responses that occur very quickly in time. Good timing is essential in all areas of dog training and behavior modification and the clicker can mark a behavior more precisely than praise or even a one-word human utterance such as “Good!” Third, the clicker sounds the same every single time – although some owners/trainers are very good at using a verbal praise word in the same way every time, for other owners this can be difficult to do. The clicker is a highly consistent stimulus from one use to the next.
Written by Megan E. Maxwell, PhD