WHAT? & WHY? – CLICKER TRAINING
Several years past I attended a basic training course for my dog. Actually it was I who needed training but that is for another articles. In the class the leader brought out this little plastic box that made the sound of a cricket. She told us it was a CLICKER, and that with this we would train our dog. I was skeptical. I mean, after all, how manly is that thing? I wanted to stand tall and erect, chest out, and with a baritone voice give commands and everyone is wowed by my control of my dog. I was not impressed with the use of this tool.
The problem was, this thing called a CLICKER was not well explained. The science of CLICKER training was never referred to. I thought this to be another silly fad. Without proper introduction and demonstration one cannot understand the proper use and the effectiveness of the CLICK to which the animal, for this article, the dog, in just a few minutes, comes to love. When I take the CLICKER out of a drawer or my pocket my dogs come, sit, and wait with anticipation of what is to come. If all I’m doing is moving the CLICKER the disappointment is evident on their faces, “Aaww,” and they go someplace and lie down. I want to explain that CLICKER training is not a fad, but is solidly couched in science, and its effectiveness seen in results.
“CLICKER TRAINING” can be a confusing term. Not all trainers who use a CLICKER are “CLICKER TRAINERS.” Not all trainers who use a CLICKER are positive trainers. Not all “positive trainers” are always “positive.” A bona fide CLICKER TRAININER is a Force-Free Trainer. A trainer that does not manipulate, coerce, or force the dog to do something. One who believes punishment is not needed because punishment, 1. Shuts the dog down, 2. Destroys the trust of the dog in the trainer. There are other watershed problems with using punishment in training an animal, but I will not go into those. Just think about a teacher who punishes the children and your child doesn’t want to go to school anymore, perhaps gets sick before the bus arrives, and you will be able to fill in the sentences I am leaving out.
Personally, I prefer using the term “Marker Training.” We also refer to the CLICKER as an Event Marker. The event is the wanted behavior offered by the dog, the CLICK marks the event of that behavior being offered. “Marker Training” explains what I do when I use a CLICKER in my training. Marker Training and CLICKER TRAINING can also be confusing for this reason, not all CLICKER TRAINERS do not always use that little box that clicks. We “Marker Trainers,” to mark a desired behavior may use the CLICKER, we may use a tongue click, we may use a retractable pen for a softer click, we may use a whistle, and we may use a word, or we may use all of these depending on what is working best. Important to remember is that CLICKER TRAINING or Marker Training is a psychology, a technology, and a philosophy of training.
It would be helpful to have a working knowledge of both classical conditioning and operant conditioning. The reason this would be helpful is so one, in selecting a trainer, will have an understanding of a trainer’s terminology. Traditional trainers often use the language of a Marker trainer, but not the practice. CLICKER TRAINERS not only use the terminology, but we apply the principles of operant conditioning in all we do. It is more than a “method,” it is a way, It is not what we use, but who we are.
When I “mark” a behavior, usually with a CLICKER, I am marking a behavior in time. For the dog it is like a snapshot of the behavior he (I don’t like the word “it,” so I will use “he” generically), performed. The CLICK is a green light, it is a loud, “yes” that the dog understands. Following the CLICK his behavior is reinforced, which “pays” him for the behavior. Now the behavior is most likely to be repeated.
The CLICK is always followed by a reinforcement. The dog must pair the CLICK with a reward. The reward is usually food, but not necessarily. Sometimes it is a toy, a moment of play, it could be praise. But always CLICK, reinforcement. To pair the CLICK with the reward is to have your dog in front of you and you CLICK and treat ten times a couple times a day for two or three days. The evidence your dog is getting it is when you CLICK and he jerks his head. He may run to you so have a treat ready for him. Now you are ready to use the CLICKER for training.
Here are three term terms remember. First, the CLICKER is a “secondary reinforcer.” When the dog hears the CLICK, that in itself is a reinforcer, but something must follow that. Second, this is where the treat or reward comes in. The treat is a “primary reinforcer.” It is the “wage” for the work just performed by the dog. Three, a bridge. The CLICK serves as a bridge in that you have a few seconds to give the reward. Because the reward in now solidly paired with the CLICK the time for delivery is not thought of, by the dog, a delay. He is not going to lose his connection between the CLICK and his behavior. This is better understood when you think of the trainer of dolphins. The trainer blows a whistle to mark the behavior the dolphin just correctly performed, but it takes the dolphin a couple of seconds for him to swim to the trainer to get his fish as a reinforcer.
I won’t go into how the CLICK, as a secondary reinforcer, goes through is processed through the amygdala to the cortex and locks in the behavior as it is reinforced. When the dog has that down, he never forgets it. When that behavior is under stimulus control you can put the CLICKER and treats in the drawer until you are going to train another behavior. My point is that the CLICK is not just a meaningless noise paired with a reward. The process is psychologically sound and the results predictable. This is why I love what I do because the dog enjoys the training, I enjoy training, and as partners we succeed together. It is a new day when the dog realizes we are communicating in a meaningful way, and that he is the one making that thing CLICK.
So here are the steps:
- We capture the dog sitting,
- CLICK the behavior (the sit),
- Deliver a reward/treat to the dog,
- Perhaps toss the treat two feet away,
- When the dog returns, he should sit again,
- If he doesn’t, wait until he does, he will figure it out,
- CLICK when he sits,
- Repeat the steps.
Notice, I am not using a word yet. I am not saying “sit.” I want to get the behavior first and as the dog understands what we are doing. When the dog is returning and sitting, on his own, eight to ten times in a minute, then it is time to introduce the word (cue), “sit.” The key is, as the dog is sitting and committed to the sit, say the cue, “sit,” then when his butt touches the floor, CLICK and reward. Again you can toss the treat a couple of feet away which will reset him. He returns, begins his sit, give cue “sit,” CLICK, reward.
You see, in Marker training we want to get the behavior, then use a word to pair with the behavior. We are cooperating together. No force, no coercion, no punishment. In traditional training the trainer tell the dog “sit,” which the dog has no clue what is being asked or told. Then the trainer jerks up on a choke chain or prong collar, pushes down on the dog’s butt, forcing it to “sit.” So the dog is punished twice. 1. The choke chain is jerked up (remember, a choke chain does what it is called), 2. The dog’s but is pushed down. The dog stiffens his hind legs in reflex, but is forced to sit. Actually there is another, 3. The trainer says, “siiutt” in a deep, gruff voice, which is threatening to the dog. The dog is punished for what he doesn’t know or understand. He now hates training sessions because, for him, they are punishment sessions. At some point a person, perhaps a child, will place a hand on the dog’s hips, and the dog may turn and snap at or bite. Then guess what? The dog is labeled aggressive, is rehomed or worse yet, euthanized.
The trainer should not be doing all the work. This is not magic, it is not secret, like a recipe. As a trainer want to teach you, the owner, what I do, then you don’t need me to continue training behaviors and/or tricks. Training should be fun for you and the dog. If it isn’t fun, if you and/or your dog do not enjoy what is going on, STOP IT! If you are frustrated, DON’T START! If you are angry with someone, DON’T TRAIN! Your dog knows your mood and will act accordingly.
The training of a behavior culminates, hopefully, in “Stimulus Control.” Stimulus Control. Using the “sit” example, “sit” is the cue that prompts the behavior. When I say or sign “sit” I don’t want the dog to lie down, or spin, or spin then sit. When I want to test the clarity and effectiveness of the cue I have chosen, here is what I look for.
- When I give the verbal or visual cue, the stimulus, (sit) the dog sits.
- (In a training session) The dog does not sit in the absence of being cued to do so.
- The dog does not sit if I give another cue like, spin or stand.
- The dog does not lie down or spin when I give the cue to sit.
This does not mean the dog cannot sit at will during the day. I am talking about being in a training session or a competition. This is how you establish the dogs understand of the word or the signal given to elicit that particular behavior.
This is all accomplished with that little box that clicks. With the CLICKER we capture the behavior, we then add a word or a signal to pair with that behavior, then refine the dogs understanding of that word or signal, and generalize that cued behavior in other environments.
Remember, when a behavior is established, you can put the CLICKER and treats away until you want to teach another behavior. You will still reward and reinforce behaviors when your dog responds to a cue. You do this periodically because you love your dog and show appreciation for doing what you ask. If a behavior weakens it may mean you are not clear or you have allowed something else to be attached to your cue. You may get the CLICKER and treats out to reestablish that particular cue. If you punish the dog for not offering the behavior right away when cued, then you may poison the cue and need to change the cue for that behavior.
For trainers who may read this, I am aware I did not get into the dynamics of classical or operant conditioning. I did not get into the six aspects of Fluency as related to Stimulus Control. I did not explain that a person can have two cues for one behavior, but cannot have two behaviors expected with one cue. My interest here is the science and practice of Marker training, also referred to as CLICKER TRAINING. If one feels I left something out, did not emphasize something strongly enough, did not address the objections to, or misunderstandings of, or did not draw comparisons between Force-Free and Traditional training, I understand. My intent was not to write a comparative study of CLICKER TRAINING. It is intended to be an expose’ of CLICKER TRAINING proper.
If one has an understanding of my psychology, philosophy, and method of training an animal one can understand better other articles I write. This Force-Free approach is not an option for me, it is me. It is not up for debate. The proofs are in the results. I train in home pets, I train Service Dogs, and I work to modify very aggressive dogs. My methods are the same. I cannot, will not train aggression in a dog. There is no place for choke chains, prong collars, or shock collars in working with an animal. I collect these control and tortuous products from owners who were told, These work.”
The dogs we CLICKER TRAINERS work with, love us. I tell clients, “If your dog does not act this way with a trainer, get rid of the trainer” We laugh together at that, but I also am serious. Only trust your pet with someone who will treat him with respect, dignity, and kindness.