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Clicker Training

Clicker Training

One of the most revolutionary techniques in dog training was the invention of the clicker. Karen Pryor, an animal behaviorist, has made clicker training a household name. A clicker is simply a noisemaker, sometimes it is called a cricket. It is relatively small in size but delivers a sharp click.

The main focus of clicker training goes hand in hand with operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a type of training that relies on the power of consequence.

Whatever consequence is present determines whether the behavior that brought about the consequence will be present again.

To understand clickers we must review types of reinforcement. Reinforcement is simply the reward. In most dog training systems, there are primary reinforcers, which the dog finds enjoying but didn’t have to learn to enjoy them. The most common primary reinforcer in dog training is food. Water and social contact are also considered primary reinforcers among most dogs. Secondary reinforcements are things that the dog has had to learn to enjoy such as physical contact or toys. Then there are the conditioned reinforcers. Conditioned reinforcement is anything that the dog finds pleasing that he has learned to enjoy as a result of its being linked with unconditioned reinforcement. For most dogs, praise is a conditioned reinforcer, since a puppy is not born with the biological need for praise. Instead, a puppy learns that praise can bring attention, tidbits of food, or play.

Why are conditioned reinforcers necessary? To be honest, conditioned reinforcers are simply a matter of convenience. They allow dog trainers to cheat with the timing of their rewards. Let’s use an example. Suppose you want to teach your dog to catch a Frisbee. The ending behavior you need to achieve is for your dog to catch the

Frisbee. So you may wonder, how do you reinforce with a primary reinforcer if the dog is physically away from you and has something in its mouth? This is where conditioned reinforcers come in. By delivering a conditioned reinforcer it allows you to mark the behavior you want to reinforce exactly when it happens, and it also allows you to bridge the time gap between the target behavior and the primary reinforcer. In simple terms, the conditioned reinforcer is letting the dog know that it has performed the correct behavior, and that food or some other reinforcement will come shortly as a result. Many things have been used as conditioned reinforcers such as praise, whistles, flashlight beams, and the clicker!

The clicker is a particularly effective conditioned reinforcer for a dog because it delivers a crisp, novel sound. This makes it an attention grabber to dogs so it is easy for them to detect the association with primary reinforcement. This is in contrast to using words because dogs hear us speaking a lot, without any significance to the words. As with words, it is important that you as a trainer be sensitive and make sure that your dog does not hear the clicker outside of training sessions.

Why use a clicker? One of the most common mistakes in training is the timing and consistency of rewards. The clicker allows you to get a handle on that. Think of how many times you have asked your dog to sit and the minute he sits and by the time you reach for the reward the dog is standing. Dogs pay attention to timing, they can’t possibly make an association to the fact that you are rewarding them for a behavior that occurred several minutes ago.

So how do we establish the clicker as a conditioned reinforcer? It is sometimes useful to use the analogy of a rechargeable battery. When you purchase a rechargeable battery it does not come charged. You have to usually let is charge overnight before using it. It is the same with the clicker. If you just make the clicker sound in front of your dog, your dog may look at you peculiarly, but then get on its way. We need to do something that is called in training terms “loading the clicker.”

One very simple procedure to establishing the clicker as a conditioned reinforcer for your dog is to sit in front of the TV with a clicker and a bag of treats. With the clicker in one hand and a treat in the other closed hand, sound the clicker and open your hand to present the treat to your dog. You will not need to say anything. Repeat this process the first night at least twenty-five times, click and treat, click and treat. Try to space the pairings appropriately. If they are too close together the dog may get confused and figure out what predicts what. The sound of the click must be the only cue the dog has as to the delivery of food. Once established the dog should show preparatory behaviors after hearing the click, such as looking at you, salivating. Once you believe your dog has learned the association, test him by waiting until he is distracted by something, click and observe his reaction. If he is motivated for the food and has learned the association he should turn and come to you expectantly.

So that now you have the appropriate association with the clicker it is time to put it to use. You can start shaping your dog’s behavior in approximations which are small steps. Remember that a behavior is made up sometimes of three or four different steps. Reinforcing your dog after each step will make your goals more achievable. It is also very useful to catch your dog in behaviors that you want to reinforce. Carry the clicker around with you and a treat pouch. Anytime you catch your dog doing a behavior that you want, simply click. If you see your dog sitting, click the behavior. Most dogs that have a strong association between the clicker and food, and you can wait several minutes after a click before you have to treat. In fact it has been documented that some well-trained dogs can perform over 30 behaviors with just the clicker as the reinforcer.

What are the disadvantages of the clicker? Some people find it awkward to give up a hand while they are training. Some people are also intimidated by the apparent complexity of the clicker, mostly because it appears to be an extra step in the training process. Another difficulty addressed is the idea of taking your dog to a clicker class. Dogs may not be able to focus on your clicker alone if it has several other clickers going off at the same time. Most obedience instructors suggest that the dog after some training will be focused on you and not just an auditory signal. This is a valid point. Dogs are very keen to body language, not only will they be listening to an auditory signal but watching your hand and your facial expression as you click.

You can purchase a clicker at most local pet stores or animal behaviorists. Even some veterinarians have jumped on the bandwagon. They are relatively inexpensive. So grab your clicker, and click your way to becoming a successful dog trainer.

You may freely reprint this article provided you include the following with the article:
Dog article courtesy of The Puppy Network (

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