You may have heard about clicker training, a method of positive reinforcement training. But what does it mean? How is it different from just rewarding your dog for making good choices?
Firstly, clicker training is rooted in science. Behavioral science tells us that behaviors that are rewarded will continue. Clicker training was developed by marine mammal trainers; however, they use whistles because they can be heard underwater. Marine mammal trainers had to use some sort of positive reinforcement method to train the animals with which they worked. Not surprisingly, negative reinforcement or aversive training doesn’t work with an animal that can simply swim away if he is in pain or uncomfortable! The clicker, or whistle in this case, is a bridge. It tells the animal that whatever he is doing at the time he hears the click or whistle is correct and will earn a reward.
Why is this better than just rewarding an animal after it completes the desired action? For example, perhaps a trainer wants to train a dolphin to create a bigger splash when jumping. Without marking the exact action that the dolphin creates a splash, the dolphin doesn’t know if he is being rewarded for jumping high, jumping fast, returning quickly to the trainer after jumping, etc.
There are many variables that can be interpreted or misinterpreted when, in actuality, all the trainer cares about is the splash. With a clicker (or whistle) the trainer can “mark” the exact moment a big splash is created. Now the dolphin knows exactly what action should be repeated in the future to earn more rewards. In short, clicker training is very efficient!
How does this relate to your dog? Using clicker, or marker, training, you can communicate to your dog exactly what he is doing that will earn him a reward.
A clicker is a mechanical noise maker, however, you can also use a verbal marker word. Many trainers use “yes” or “good.” It’s important that this verbal marker not be confused with verbal praise, and that it is always used in the same tone of voice.
So how would you use marker training with your dog? Here’s an example…you are teaching your dog to lie down on cue, however, your dog tends to immediately pop back up into a stand the moment his elbows hit the floor. You can’t possibly deliver a reward fast enough for him to connect the reward with the lying down action. Bring in the clicker! You can click, or mark, the moment his elbows hit the floor so that even if he does stand back up, you can still reward him and he still knows what he is being rewarded for. As your dog learns, you can delay your click, or mark, so your dog learns that remaining in a down position is what earns his reward!
Ready to start clicker training? Not so fast… First you need to charge your clicker! Right now, a click or marker word doesn’t mean anything to your dog. Before you can start using it in training, you have to give the sound value. This step is very simple. Count out 10 small treats. Click and feed treat, click and feed treat, click and feed treat, and continue until you have used all 10 treats. Now when you click or use your marker word, your dog will be expecting a treat!
Try it out. Start with something simple that your dog already knows: Sit, for example. Ask your dog to sit, click/mark as your dog’s rump touches the floor, and then deliver your reward. Some other behaviors where using a clicker can be handy?
Jumping – You can click for four paws on the floor much easier – and faster- than you can deliver a treat when all four paws are on the floor.
Stay – Click any time your dog is staying still.
Go to place – You no longer have to be next to your dog, or follow him to his bed, to reward him for going to his bed when asked.
IMPORTANT TIPS FOR SUCCESSFUL CLICKER TRAINING
Don’t forget! Follow up every click with a reward! This could be food, a toy, praise/petting, or anything else your dog enjoys. Important Tips for Successful Clicker Training
• Pay up!
• Practice timing!
• 1 click = 1 reward
• Delivery reward within 3 seconds • Click for action; reward for position.
Over the years, I’ve had more people than I can count ask if they can apprentice under me to learn to train dogs. I’ve generally always said yes as I love to share my passion and dream of working with dogs! And, lets be honest, I can’t train all the dogs in the world (Although I would give it a good try!) But time and again, these initially enthusiastic, eager, would-be trainers just slowly disappear. They stop coming to classes or have “other plans” and will come “the next week”.
You see, no one really knows what it’s like to be a professional dog trainer. Training your neighbor’s dog for a couple extra bucks is not the same as being a professional dog trainer. Holding a couple of group classes once and a while isn’t being a professional dog trainer. Offering advice to anyone who asks on how to fix problem a, b, or c, isn’t being a professional dog trainer. Here, in my experience, is what being a professional dog trainer is all about:
Dogs don’t ask to be in our lives, so it’s our responsibility to not only ensure they have a roof over their heads and food in their bellies, but also meet all of their other needs as well; their need for exercise, their need for enrichment, their need to be a dog. Dogs aren’t humans, and it’s no wonder there are so many issues that need to be sorted, but a dedicated, ethical, driven trainer will help build that bridge of understanding and in doing so, build an unbreakable bond between you and your dog. I am humbled daily by what dogs have to teach me and there isn’t anything, anywhere, or anyone, that could ever make me want to change professions. I have visions of myself, in my 90’s, possibly even in a wheel chair, working with clients and their dogs to enhance and build that elusive bond!
So if you think dog training is playing with fluffy puppies all the time, you are right, and you are wrong.
Paws & Love