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What is Clicker Training
and
Why Does it Work?

What is a Clicker?

A clicker is simply a signal to your dog (cat/rabbit/horse) that he will be rewarded for his current behavior.  It is a noise that becomes connected to an imminent reward.  (A reward is anything that your dog wants.  When it is given at the same time as a behavior it increases the probability that the behavior will occur again.)

How is Learning Achieved?

Understanding the principles of learning will give you a greater understanding of how/why the clicker works and will enable you to use it to its full potential.

First, a behavior that is rewarded is likely to increase.  For example, if the dog is rewarded for jumping on a person by getting attention, the dog has learned that jumping is a good thing to do and will do it again.

Second, a behavior which is unrewarding is likely to decrease.  For example, if the dog is ignored when jumping on a person, they are less likely to try it again as it did not gain the desired effect.

Third, a behavior that has a history of being rewarded is less likely to decrease if it is then intermittently rewarded.  For example, a small puppy may be rewarded often for jumping on a person by getting attention, as they are small and sweet, but once he gets bigger he may be rejected/ignored by some people.  Because he knows that a reward (attention) is available, he is likely to keep trying to get the attention rather than give up.

This intermittent reward rule is very effective in maintaining and improving on a behavior that has already been learned.  By selecting the best behaviors from the dog, they will learn to try harder in order to be rewarded.  It can also work against us in that it also maintains inappropriate behaviors such as jumping up, pulling on the lead or taking human food.

Taking these rules into account it is easy to see why clicker training works. Behavior that you want to encourage is reinforced using the click and reward. Behavior that you don’t want to reinforce is simply ignored.  Once a behavior is learned you don’t need to click and reward any longer - you can just praise each time.  Dogs learn to work for a clicker because of its connection to the reward.

These examples of such connections will help you understand how the connections are formed.

In the case of school children, the school bell is similar to a clicker.  Although we are not born finding bells extremely exciting and rewarding things, we quickly learn to associate the sound with freedom, playtime and the end of lessons.  We therefore look forward to the bell itself, because of the associated events it represents.
 
At Christmas, our presents are usually wrapped in fancy paper.  Although fancy paper itself is not exciting it does provoke a reaction of excitement and anticipation in many of us, due to the fact it is connected with us receiving something we want.  We therefore react to the sight of the paper.

Where did Clicker Training Begin?

The principles used in clicker training were first applied in the training of marine mammals such as dolphins.  It is also useful for training many other species and is widely used by animal trainers for film work and teaching complex tasks. Obviously when training a dolphin, cat, bird etc. you would not be able to force the animal to do what is required and even if you could do so, the animal would likely become frightened or aggressive and no longer participate in the training. Using the clicker enables the trainer to indicate to the animal, often when he is not in a position to accept a reward, that the behavior at that time is what is wanted and will be rewarded.

A good example is teaching a dolphin to jump.  It would be virtually impossible to reward the dolphin with a fish while he is in the air.  The clicker (or perhaps a whistle or other marker) is used while the dolphin is in the air to indicate to him that there will be a fish waiting for him when he comes back down.  This enables the trainer to achieve higher, faster and more complex jumps as the dolphin learns which jumps he is being rewarded for by listening for the clicker, and will try harder to get the clicks.

Why Clicker Train Dogs?

In recent years dog training has moved over to using motivation and reward to achieve goals.  Dogs are shown what to do with a motivator and then rewarded for doing the correct thing.  This relies far more on the dog paying attention and using his brain to figure out what is required and how to get the reward.  When training dogs in this way praise is very important and plays a large part in letting the dog know when he has done well.

Clicker training is a way of bringing more precision to training.  One thing that trainers noticed is that it is sometimes very difficult to get across to the dog when he is doing something right and when he has made a mistake.  What handlers shouldn’t do when training dogs is tell them off for making mistakes. This will only teach the dog that training is no fun and that he may get into trouble at certain times.  With this attitude a dog is likely to give up trying to learn for fear of getting it wrong.  It can however be a slow process if we sometimes miss the opportunity to reward a dog for the right thing.  The reason this may happen is because our main method of communicating to the dog that he has done the right thing is to tell him so and then get a reward to him.

The clicker is used to indicate to your dog - ‘well done, you will be rewarded for that’.  It is almost always followed by a reward, usually a food treat.

The clicker is a very precise and to the point way of saying ‘good boy’, at exactly the time you want the dog to know he has got it right.

How Does It Work?

One big difference between traditional lure reward training and clicker training is the use of initiative.  Dogs who have been trained with a clicker learn to try things out, in order to get their trainer to click and reward.  Lure trained dogs will often wait to be shown what to do.  Lure training is very effective but once a dog has learned to do something with a lure it is necessary to change the lure to a signal and be sure that a dog does not continue to rely on the lure.  It also has some limitations especially with distance work. 

With clicker training, much of the learning is done through waiting for the dog to offer a behavior, catching that moment and rewarding it, although luring may sometimes be necessary to get the dog thinking in the right direction.  Luring refers to the act of showing a dog what is required, by leading it with a piece of food or a toy.  For example, to lure a dog into the sitting position a trainer would raise a piece of food from the dogs nose back over his head causing the dog to look up.  Because of the way dogs are designed, looking straight up usually causes them to sit.  The dog would then be rewarded for this.

It is important to note that lure reward and clicker training are BOTH necessary to achieve the ultimate training goals.  If you only provide only lure reward then you are not allowing the dog to think on it's own.  If you provide only clicker training, then you have a dog that is always looking for something that will result in a click and has a more difficult time understanding the final goal.  This is why a combination of lure reward and clicker training work best.

What can You Teach with a Clicker?

Anything you like.  Clicker training is useful for teaching basic and complex behaviors alike.  It comes into its own when training distance work as it no longer becomes necessary to get the reward to the dog the instant they show the correct behavior.  When using lure reward training you should always reward the dog while it is doing the behavior that you are rewarding.  The reason for this is that the reward is also the signal that the dog has got it right.  With the clicker, the sound of the clicker quickly becomes the indication to the dog that he is doing the right thing, and he can now stop.  The clicker indicates that the dog has done the right thing and ends the behavior.

The clicker is not a magical noise.  It does not in itself, have any kind of fundamental meaning to a dog.  It is not a remote control!  It means "you will be rewarded for that behavior"  It is always followed by a reward.  Anything that is rewarded is likely to be repeated!!!

Loading the Clicker

It is VERY important that the clicker be used correctly.  It must be "loaded" prior to asking the dog to understand it's meaning.

Loading simply means that the dog learns the association between the click and the reward.  So, you simply click and reward, without any behavior being requested or done.  At this point, we are simply making the association between the "click" and the reward.  After this association is made, the dog will begin to "offer" behaviors in order to get the resulting reward.

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