Monday, January 3, 2011

What is Clicker Training?

Clicker training, or operant conditioning, is becoming more and more widespread throughout PEI, but in some ways is still grossly misunderstood. In this post, and over the next few posts, I will work to describe the essence of clicker training and what it's all about, and most especially why it is so effective (and fun!)

What is a clicker?

A clicker is simply a small plastic box with a metal tab inside of it and a tab or button that you can press. When you press it, it makes a "clik-clik" sound.

How is it used?

A clicker is used as a marker to mark a specific moment in time. More precisely, it marks a specific action of your dog at a certain moment in time. This sound tells your dog that it has done something that you like, and is going to receive a reward for that behaviour. A reward always follows a click.

If you click/reward the same behaviour multiple times (for example, your dog sitting), your dog will begin to perform that behaviour more often. That is how they learn new skills.

A good way to think about a clicker, to help understand it, is to look at it like a camera. You are trying to *take a picture* of a desirable behavior, and then reward your dog for performing that behavior.

But can't I just give my dog a treat?

One benefit of the clicker is that it helps you tell your dog precisely what it did right at the moment it did it. Often training problems are due to poor timing of rewards, so this helps your dog to catch on quickly to new skills.

Picture this: you are teaching your dog to sit. Just as your dog sits, you say "good boy" and reach to give him a treat. As you do that, he jumps up to get the treat. Congrats - you have just rewarded jumping up! With a clicker, however, if you click as soon as he sits, he will understand that it is the sit that is being rewarded, even if he does get up from sitting - because you have marked the precise behavior that he did right!

Okay, but why do I need to click? Can't I just tell him he's a good dog?

You can, and should, use verbal praise when you are interacting with your dog. In reality, though, we talk to (and at!) Our dogs. A lot. And sometimes, they start to tune out some of the things we say and it becomes background noise. The clicker makes the same distinct sound every time, it doesn't change due to moods, it doesn't get angry, and dogs quickly learn because it is consistent. Dogs understand consistency, and they come to really love the clicker.

What can I teach with it?

Anything that a dog is physically able to do! It is used from simple things like manners and tricks, to teaching complex skill sets in dog sports and service dog work. You can teach your dog to sit politely, walk nicely on leash, go to his bed, and fetch a toy. You can also teach your dog to clean up its toys, retrieve a kleenex, or to get the morning paper! The things you can do are endless.

Okay, so what about when my dog does something bad?

Clicker training is used to build new behaviours. Most of us have it tightly ingrained in us that you need to *punish* bad behaviour when it occurs. With clicker training, we rephrase the question and turn it into a solution. Instead of "how do I get my dog to stop doing _______?", we ask "What would we like Fido to do instead?" And then you set about teaching it.

So....instead of "How do I get Sparky to stop jumping", we rethink - "How do I get Sparky to sit nicely when greeting visitors or strangers?". Aha! A teachable behaviour!

Or, "How do I get Sparky to stop dragging me down the street?" Quickly becomes "How do I teach Sparky to walk nicely beside me and to follow my movements?" Aha! Another teachable behavior!

90% of what we call "bad behaviour" is simply a situation in which your dog has not learned what it is you would like your dog to do. When the dog is left to figure it out, without learning what we like, our dogs will learn to do it in dog-like ways. It really is a human-behaviour problem, not a dog behaviour problem. The dog is being a totally normal dog. The onus is on us to teach, so it's not fair to jump to punishment when it is us who have failed to teach them what is desired in the first place.

When you move into severe behaviour problems especially, such as aggression, fear, and anxiety, physical or verbal punishment has no place in your training program as it is only going to increase your dog's emotional state, not calm it.  Remember - punishment can mask behaviour, and stop a behaviour at that moment in time, but it doesn't change the emotion behind it, nor does it change anything long-term. If you continue to punish your dog while in one of these states, you are in essence creating a ticking timebomb waiting to go off. Clicker training has found a very strong place in re-conditioning dogs with aggression or fear-based problems.

Do I have to use a clicker forever? That sounds like a lot of work.

No. A clicker is used to teach new behaviours. Once behaviours are learned, you can fade out the use of the clicker and just incorporate their skills into everyday life.

So, how do I get started?

That, folks, will be the topic of the next posting. Stay tuned!

If you have any questions that you would like answered about clicker training, share them here or email them to

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