If you are a dog owner, chances are that at some point you have seen or heard one of these: a clicker.
You may have wondered, what is the fuss with these little chirpy cricket things? Why do some trainers seem so obsessed with them? Are they necessary? Are they effective? Are they just a passing fad in dog training?
CLICKER CLIFFNOTES: A BRIEF HISTORY
Clickers, and tools like them, have actually been in use for training animals for many years. B.F. Skinner first laid the foundation for clicker training when he conducted studies about behavior and operant conditioning as early as the 1930s. However, the use of clicker training did not catch on more until the late 1980s or early 1990s. Clicker training is based on behavioral studies of how animals learn, and is supported by a great deal of behavioral science studies. Karen Pryor is probably the most respected clicker trainer in the field of dog training. While the visibility of clickers has increased, many people have little idea about what these little noise boxes are for and why many trainers seem to like them so much.
There are also a lot of misconceptions out there about clickers. A clicker is a training tool, and like any tool, it can be used correctly or incorrectly. When used incorrectly, a clicker can make training quite confusing!
This clip of Chris Pratt training velociraptors from Jurassic World is an example of clickers gone wrong. I remember my friend laughing at me while I visibly fumed and grinded my teeth during this segment of the movie, groaning, “THAT’S NOT HOW YOU USE A CLICKER!!!” It doesn’t matter whether you are training a dog or a Hollywood CG velociraptor, the basic tenets of clicker training remain the same.
CORRECT USE OF CLICKERS
A clicker is used to MARK a desired behavior. As soon as the dog performs the desired behavior (such as sitting), the trainer marks it with one click (ONE CLICK, Chris Pratt…just one). This click is immediately followed by a REWARD, often a tasty treat.
Why not simply shove the treat in the dog’s mouth when she sits, you may be wondering? Well, behavioral science shows that a dog has to receive the reward within half a second of performing the desired behavior to understand what she is receiving the reward for.
For instance, let’s say you are teaching your dog to sit. Your dog sits, and you fish in your pocket for a treat. You pop a treat in your dog’s mouth, and by the time you do so, she is watching a squirrel across the street. Your dog now is starting to build an association that squirrels are a predictor of rewards, when really, we wanted her to learn that sitting is!
Timing is EXTREMELY important in dog training. It is much easier to click within half a second of your dog’s sit than to administer a treat. So, we teach the dog that “click” = reward. Then, we can MARK good behavior with a click, and we have some more time to give a treat to your dog without interfering with learning! Think of a clicker as a tool that greatly improves communication with your dog
While this is a simple example, you can train dogs to do darned near anything with clicker training and positive reinforcement— if we reward behaviors we find desirable, their frequency will increase. Actually, you can train many different animals with a clicker. Marine mammal trainers have been using this method to train dolphins, seals, and other animals to do tricks for many years using whistles instead of clickers.
While positive reinforcement training and clicker training has a long history of success supported by science, it can be hard for humans to grasp at first.
Humans live in a very correction-oriented society. When you were a kid, if you did something wrong, your parents probably scolded you. Maybe they grounded you or gave you a spanking. If an adult does something against the law, perhaps they go to jail. Our society revolves around punishment to keep humans in line, so perhaps it is not surprising that people naturally apply this type of discipline to their dogs. However, not only is clicker training is fun and effective, it also doesn’t carry some of the risks associated with other types of training. In other words, there are many reasons why it is worth learning how to use positive reinforcement to train your dog, and clickers are a tool that can help.
DO I REALLY HAVE TO USE THAT CLICKER? IT’S ANNOYING
Some people just don’t like the idea of carrying a little chirpy box around and using it. Well, if that is the biggest road block for you in considering clicker training, I have two pieces of good news.
The first piece of good news is that you don’t have to use a clicker forever. Once a dog fully learns a behavior, a clicker is not required, and even treats can be phased out over time.
The second piece of good news is that if you refuse to use a clicker entirely, a trainer should be willing to help you use a different sound or word to mark a behavior. The word “Yes!” is commonly used as a marker if a clicker is unavailable or unsuitable for other reasons.
In other words, you can get all the benefits of positive reinforcement training without using the clicker, if it really bothers you that much. However, oftentimes dogs (and their owners too!) show a very positive response to the clicker, so you should consider giving it a try!
In summary, clickers are a tool commonly used by positive reinforcement trainers to safely and effectively train dogs and other animals. If you have never used a clicker before, definitely consult with a trainer or sign up for a training class before embarking on using the clicker on your own so you can learn the basics with support. The clicker itself is not a magical item that guarantees that your dog will evolve into a well-mannered Lassie overnight. Instead, it is the way the clicker is used in combination with proper timing, rewards, and techniques like luring, shaping, and capturing that result in great training outcomes.
Wiggles and Woofs now offers private consultations for positive reinforcement training, and we’re happy to help get you started with the basics! You get a free clicker too! You can learn more about training on our Rates and Services page.
Thanks for reading!
Thank you to pexels.com for the adorable dog photos!
DISCLAIMER: This blog post is not intended to provide professional dog training advice. The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained on this website are for informational purposes only. The purpose of this website is to promote understanding and knowledge of various pet-related topics.