We all know dogs have short attention spans, and are easily distracted. That being said, half a second vs. five seconds can have a pretty big impact on successful training! Fortunately, someone invented a device to help- the clicker!
Clicker Dog Training Explained
Clicker Training is a form of operant conditioning, a principle dealing with the causes of an action, and their consequences or outcomes. An adaptation of techniques developed over 30 years ago to train marine mammals, this bridge tool has become extremely popular.
Most of you probably already know what clicker training is, and maybe even own a clicker yourself. If not, that is fine- I will explain it. The idea here is merely to make one particular sound immediately after a behavior is performed, and follow that sound with a treat/reward. It may take you 3-4 seconds to get that treat out of your pocket, but it won’t even take a second to make a ‘clicking’ noise (if you don’t own a clicker, you can just use your tongue against the roof of your mouth). After said ‘click’, reward the dog with a treat.
Eventually, the dog is going to make the connection; ‘click means I get a treat. I only hear the ‘click’ when I did something right.’ So I have to do that right thing that makes my owner happy in order to get the treat.
I suggest incorporation of Positive Reinforcement (as I nearly always do) with the ‘click’- the absolute best outcome can be achieved if good, happy and enjoyable associations are made. In strict psychological terms, positive indicates only an addition; the dog’s behavior needs to result in a desired and enjoyable outcome for him to want to repeat the action. The top left corner in the blue picture you see; ignore the others.
Be careful not to confuse the dog; don’t reward him one day, then punish him the other, or wait too long for the follow-up. The whole reason for the clicker is to follow one behavior up immediately, not after two or three things have happened following the dog’s actions.
Let me make some examples, in human terms:
- You hear a siren in the distance, and automatically think ‘ambulance’ though you can’t see it.
- A deep ‘bark’ is heard, and you think ‘dog’. You don’t need to see the act of the dog forming the bark; you’ve seen/heard it hundreds of times before.
- You hear a ‘meow’ and think ‘cat’, but see that the sound is coming from a dog.
Wouldn’t it be odd and confusing if you heard that same siren, but you saw it was coming from an old Volkswagen Beetle? If this continued to happen on a daily, regular basis, you would begin to expect the siren from that old beat up car. What if you began hearing deep barks, only to see they came from small kittens? Or dogs started to make cat sounds?
On the other hand, take a very young child who has never seen or heard either, and combine the sounds- it would seem natural to them (maybe not a deep bark from a small kitten).The same works for the dog; he will make the relation to whatever follows- no meaning has been established yet. He will be just as confused if a meaning has been established, but you change it all of a sudden.
A Few Final Words About Clicker Dog Training
I have noticed many ‘old school’ trainers don’t like to use this tool, while it seems more popular in today’s trends. I have also heard a lot of badmouthing going on- let me make one final thing crystal clear.
A clicker is nothing more than a training tool, a tool used to develop associations. I believe it is best used to create positive associations, but you can just as easily create undesirable ones, relate it to a form of positive or negative punishment, etc. You are in control, not the device you are using.
On Karen Pryor’s training website, she defines ‘clicker training’ as a subset of operant conditioning using positive reinforcement, extinction, negative punishment, and an event marker to modify behavior.