The Basics of Clicker Training
Blog Post: January 19, 2013
At this point you’re probably living under a rock if you haven’t at least heard the term, Clicker Training... not that there’s anything wrong with that :)
So what is it? Many trainers, unfortunately, don’t really get it. If you’d had an experience with it and been unimpressed, please read on. I hope I can encourage you to add this valuable tool to your training toolbox!
The clicker itself is just a little noisemaker, the tin cricket toy of the past, that has been given new life as a training tool for a very good reason. It doesn’t have “a bad day”; is inexpensive to reproduce; and makes a nifty, not too scary sound, dogs can use to understand what people want.
I equate this type of training to teaching another human, non-English speaker, vocabulary. Of course we still both communicate using language and can say, “I’ll point at an object and give the English word for it.” Another limited parallel is the Hot & Cold game: “you’re getting warmer... no cold, colder... that’s right! Warmer, warmer, HOT!”
The clicker, once conditioned, is used to draw the dog’s attention to something to dog is doing until understanding is established, so the person can name it; ideally using both a verbal and physical cue. Once the dog understands and does what is asked when that cue is given, the clicker is no longer needed.
Initially you use a primary reinforcer, which is something your dog doesn’t have to be taught to want. Food is one and it’s quick and easy. All dogs like food, right? If they don’t... well they won’t be around to train.
Classical conditioning is what Pavlov did with dogs and what makes the click sound have meaning for your dog. He rang a bell and fed the dogs. Through repetition Pavlov documented that the sound of the bell alone eventually caused the dogs to salivate in anticipation of being fed.
You click and feed a small piece of food that takes just a fraction of a second to swallow but is big enough to make an impact. Repeat 20-30 times quickly. Dogs LOVE this part! “Click” deliver treat, “click” deliver treat, etc. It should take you less than a minute.
Your ONE-TIME test to see if the dog connects the sound to treat delivery is this: wait until the dog looks away, “click” and pause before delivering the treat this time. Did your dog look quickly to where treats are coming from when he heard the “click”? Yes = conditioning was successful, No = do it for another 10-20 times and try again (yes I realize that means the test is no longer “one-time”).
Caution: if your dog doesn’t get it after a couple of sessions or shows fear of the click sound, get an experienced clicker trainer to help you.
Once the sound has meaning you can use it to mark something your dog does that you want him to do again. This is operant conditioning and positive reinforcement which are very effective ways to communicate with someone who doesn’t share your language. For example:
Spot looks at you.
“Click” that look.
Be happy and make it clear to Spot that you’ve got a treat to give him once he gets to you.
Spot learns that when you call his name and he looks at you, something good is coming to him from you.
I’ve found that dogs learn quickly if I initially work in a familiar environment and do not interfere with his body. When you manipulate a dog to get him into a position, such as physically placing him into a down position, you introduce the distraction of touch.
Using a treat to lure a dog into position is also distracting. Both of these methods are OK to use but remember you’ll have to quickly help the dog understand that your touch and the treat lure are not part of what you want.
Capturing something the dog does with a click and setting the dog up to do it again is the fastest way I’ve found to get understanding. For example:
You gather your clicker and treats quietly at the couch and sit down.
Spot comes to your feet and lies down.
You click the moment he’s lying down on the ground and toss the treat.
Spot gets up to get the treat and returns to you with a look that says to you, “OK what just happened?”
The hard part is to then to wait quietly so Spot can figure it out through trial and error until he lies down. Initially remain quiet, saying “down” at this point is just added noise, it doesn’t have meaning for Spot yet.
Spot lies down again.
“Click” and toss the treat.
When you’ve repeated this “click” and treat toss several times, Spot will suddenly look at you with understanding and lie down right away.
“Click” and toss the treat.
Spot comes back and as he lies down you say softly “down”.
Hopefully Spot continues his progression into lying down so you can then “click” and toss the treat.
Continue a few times until you can now say “down” and Spot will lie down.
NOW you no longer need the clicker to communicate to Spot to lie down.
So why toss the treat? Because Spot will get up to get it and return giving you another opportunity to reward lying down. Dogs are good at this game. If you don’t make him get up, Spot will no longer stand up. He’ll just lie there because it works. Then what? As training continues you’ll teach Spot not to get back up to get the treat and you’ll add a hand signal.
Why stay quiet? Isn’t that cold and impersonal? Figuring out what he did to get the click is a serious mental challenge for your dog. How much do you want a teacher to talk to you, even with encouragement, while you’re solving difficult math problems in an exam? Not so much!
Dogs are very good at body language. You can feel excited when he makes the right choice or dismayed when he doesn’t and let your body communicate that to your dog. The more bonded, or better relationship, you have with your dog; the better that will work.
If you pay attention to your dog and learn from how he copes with new problems, you learn what you can do to encourage him or to give him “cold” feedback to help even more. Remember the Hot and Cold game?
Overwhelmed? All of this can be very confusing and best begun with a trainer. Once your timing is good and Spot knows what the clicker does in your hands, the sky’s the limit! If you stick with it for a month, practicing just a few minutes most days, you’ll surprise yourself and your dog will come to enjoy these training moments.
Are you stuck to always having the clicker?
No, it’s just a tool. If you see something you like and no clicker is handy, take a moment to register why your dog did what he did, what was going on that led to the dog’s reaction, and then set it up again when you’re ready with clicker and treats.
Why a clicker and not say a short word? Well remember the “bad day”? Dogs are very sensitive to their human companions. Our body language and the stress on our vocal cords tell no lies. Saying a word will not always sound the same to our sensitive, canine friends. The clicker never changes. It’s also very short and easy to apply to the moment your dog is doing what you want.
What if your dog is afraid of the noise? Stop right away and find a good trainer to help you through it. I’ve never met a dog who doesn’t love the clicker once he realizes what it does for him in your hands. Sometimes you just need a softer sound for a bit before you return to the regular clicker.
Check out ClickerTraining.com. Karen Pryor has been responsible for many advances in this method of operant conditioning and provides lots of information for free.
Contact Heidi for help if you’re in the Nashville TN area. She can help you classically condition the clicker and begin working on operant conditioning.
Not close by? Check APDT.com for trainers near you who use operant conditioning including clickers. I recommend LIMA certified trainers. Always remember, if something a trainer does makes you uncomfortable, walk away. “Master Trainer” or “Certified by XYZ Agency” means little at this point. You are the ultimate guardian of your dog’s mental and physical health!
What’s the one thing you should know to make this easier for you and your dog? Have fun!