What is clicker training?

Before answering this question I would like you to think of what is the method you want to use to train your dog.

First of all, there is a person approaching with his/her dog pulling on the leash. Occasionally the person pulls the leash and says ‘stop’ to the dog, this seems to slow the dog down for a second or two, we think that yanking the leash helped, but then the pulling continues until the person yanks the leash again. They stop, the owner tells the dog to sit, a little hesitantly the dog lowers his bum on the ground. That’s good, the dog knows how to sit. From around the corner another dog walker appears all of a sudden, our dog starts barking and jumping up and down from excitement or fear of the other dog. The owner says ‘sit’ several times, the dog just keeps jumping and barking, eventually the owner pushes the dog’s bum forcefully down and shouts ‘sit’. Good, we may think, the owner really taught the dog how to sit down there, problem solved! But we wonder if the same dog will sit down nicely the next time he encounters another dog.

Then lets think of a second case. This time we see a dog walking beside his owner with a loose leash, the owner asks the dog to ‘wait’ or ‘sit’ before crossing the street, the dog does this without hesitation and may look at the owner at the same time. Occasionally the owner rewards the dog with a treat for the nice behavior. They continue their walk. Again there is another dog approaching them in the street. The owner of our dog says ‘heel’, the dog walks beside the owner keeping a steady eye contact with the owner without even looking at the passing dog. Wow, there’s a well-behaving dog we’re thinking, and it all seemed so effortless. After these two examples I’m going to ask you which relationship would you choose to have with your dog?

As is obvious from the two above examples, one method uses punishment the other one reward. Even though dogs have been trained for centuries using punishment we are now getting more and more research evidence that positive reinforcement is the most efficient and quickest way of learning. Just think of yourself in a new job you just started, would you rather have a slap on your fingers every time you do something wrong or a five dollar increase in your paycheck every time you do something right? And depending on which response you get how do you think it would affect your relationship with your employer?

Reward, i.e. something that the dog wants, for instance a piece of a hot dog or a tennis ball, is called a positive reinforcement. To use this as a training method we reward for the behavior we want and ignore the unwanted behavior. This leads to the likelihood of the reinforced behavior to occur again as the dog got something pleasant for doing it, and the ignored behavior gradually becomes extinguished. To be able to use positive reinforcement to teach new behavior, the dog has to get it exactly at the same time as he is doing the behavior. For many behaviors the exact timing of the delivery of the reward can be tricky, for instance, how do we deliver the treat in the dog’s mouth at the time he is hopping over a jump? To overcome this dilemma we use a method called clicker training. Clicker is a little device the sound of which tells the dog that the tasty treat is coming. By clicking at the time the dog is over the jump we provide him very precise snapshot of the behavior that earned him the treat. Of course the clicking sound has no relevance to the dog to begin with, but very soon he will learn that the sound is ALWAYS followed by the treat. The dog will start offering the behavior that he was doing exactly at the time of the click and there, you can reinforce the behavior again! In psychology this is called operant conditioning, the subject will happily offer the behavior that he is being reinforced for.

The power of the clicker as a training tool lies in its distinct sound because it only occurs in the dog’s life in this one context. We can use words as well to tell the dog he is doing what we want him to, but as we humans obviously talk also when we are not training the dog, the words are too close to the ‘background noise’ in the dog’s life. Another powerful feature of the clicker is its precise timing; we can deliver the sound exactly as the dog is doing what we want. The timing is actually one of the biggest problems in the use punishment in teaching our dogs. Inadvertently, the punishment is usually delivered AFTER the behavior, this way the dog will have no clue what he is being scolded for.  It seems to us that the dog ‘knows’ he is guilty and he did wrong, but in reality he is just reacting to our change of mood and did not learn anything from the experience.

How about teaching the dog who is the leader in the household? Doesn’t my dog have to obey me the instant I tell him to do something? Do I need to keep clicking and rewarding my dog for everything until the rest of his life? A fact about clicker training and positive reinforcement that many people do not realize is that POSITIVE IS NOT PERMISSIVE. We will not allow our dogs to jump on tables after treats, and offer whatever behavior pleases them. Of course we can physically or verbally stop them from doing something harmful/dangerous. But physical manipulation is not what teaches the dog what to do. The beauty of clicker training is that we will teach our dog what to do instead of them eating the pizza from the table or barking at us when we want to watch TV. This way we don’t even need to think about the leadership issues or other urban myths because we will have consistently taught the dog what behavior we want in each situation. While teaching a new behavior, once the dog offers it reliably, we add a cue to the behavior, and gradually start rewarding for that behavior only after we’ve said the cue such as ‘sit’.  And when the cued behavior is very strong, and it works in all the environments where we want it to work, the clicker is not needed anymore. We will just occasionally and randomly give the reward for the behavior in question and the dog will happily offer it even though he is not rewarded every time. This is exactly why the slot machines are so addictive to people, you never know when you hit the jackpot!

And one more thing, dogs are not any different from other animals in the way they learn. We will not start shouting ‘come’, ‘sit’ or ‘down’ to the squirrel in the tree, the neighbor’s cat or a pigeon on the road. The same way as these animals, dogs are not born with the linguistic ability of us humans, we need to teach them the meaning of our words if we want them to respond to them.

I am sure you have a lot of questions, I would be happy to answer them any time.  I hope I got your interest in clicker training. There is one thing I can guarantee you. When used skillfully, this method guarantees you an enthusiastic and happy dog that looks forward to learning new things taught by you. Once you start training your dogs using this technique the questions and doubts you might have will be answered!

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