What is Clicker Training?
Clicker training is a method based on behavioral science that uses a marker signal followed by a reward to communicate to an animal when he has done something right.
Have you ever been to Sea World and watched an Orca whale hurl his massive body up into the air to touch a ball suspended high over the tank or a dolphin leap through a hoop on cue and wondered: “How on earth did they ever get such a powerful animal to do that?” The answer is clicker training. Although marine mammal trainers typically use a whistle instead of a clicker, the principles are the same. From zoo animals to animal-actors, from guide dogs for the blind to top agility and obedience competitors, from search and rescue dogs to family pets in dog obedience training classes everywhere, clicker training is fast becoming the preferred method of training all over the world.
The beauty of clicker training is its simplicity. If you've ever played the Hotter /Colder game, you actually already know a little bit about how to clicker train. To the animal, the click is a signal which means "Hotter" or "Yes! You are on the right track!" while no-click means "Colder" or "Try again." Once the animal learns to attend carefully to this click / no-click pattern, it becomes easy to teach him just about anything he is physically and/or mentally capable of doing. Ever wonder how to teach a dog to sit? How to teach a dog to stay? How to teach a dog to come when you call? From everyday manners to complex tricks, when training dogs with a clicker, the sky's the limit to what you can achieve!
The other great thing about dog training with a clicker is that it tends to create highly motivated learners. Clicker dogs are typically quite enthusiastic about their work because, throughout the training process, they earn a paycheck after each click, usually in the form of a small food reward. Most people enjoy their paycheck at the end of the week and dogs are no different. In this way the click comes to mean two highly reinforcing things: "Yes! You got it!" and "Yes! What you just did earned you something good!" Much like a gambler jumping for joy in a casino when the slot machine bells go off, many dogs seem to experience a similar "OH BOY!" feeling when they hear the click, and will work very hard indeed to hear it again.
Let's say you would like to teach your dog to go lay on his bed when you ask him to. Just like in the Hotter-Colder game, teaching him the clicker way involves breaking that larger task down into baby steps. First you might click the dog for looking at the bed, then for taking a step towards the bed, then for stepping onto the bed, then for sitting, and then finally for laying down all the way. Once your dog understands that going to the bed and laying down is what you want and is repeating that behavior consistently, you would then teach him the name of this new thing he's learned, so that you can ask for it without having to guide him there with the clicker anymore. The final product? You say "Go to bed!" and your dog happily sprints over and plops right down.
Dogs trained with the clicker, or marker signal, tend to truly master what they have learned because the process allows them to discover the correct answer all on their own. A good metaphor for this is driving someplace new. If you follow someone else's car to get there, staring at the bumper the whole way, it will certainly get the job done, and you will arrive at your destination just fine. However, the next time you try to find your way, you may be a little fuzzy on the details. In contrast, if you don't have someone to follow and so take some time beforehand to read a map, then to drive around, get lost a little bit, find your way again, paying attention to landmarks, etc., the chances of you remembering that route the next time are going to be much greater. Finding your own way may take slightly longer at first, but once that route is learned, it is learned for life.
The sound of the clicker is like a map or guide to keep the dog on track, but one that still allows him to be a fully present participant in the learning process. This is why dogs who are trained with the clicker tend to remember the behaviors they learn--sometimes even years later-- even if no one has practiced with them in a long time.
But perhaps the most important thing to know about clicker training is just how fun it is. Click by click, the stream of reinforcement between dog and trainer actually begins to flow both ways, exponentially strengthening the bond between them over time. The dog delights the owner with his enthusiasm and willingness to try...The trainer clicks and rewards...The dog does something delightful again....The trainer clicks and rewards....on and on....a never-ending cycle of pure joy.
- Sarah Owings, KPA CTP