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Clicker Training - by Ruth Kellogg

Using conditioned reinforcers in behavioral modification or animal training was initiated and developed by Keller Breland, Marian Breland Bailey, and Bob Bailey in the mid 1940’s. They used a whistle as a conditioned reinforcer as they were working with marine animals at that time. For many years, their work seemed to be known only to other researchers in behavioral science. In 1975, Karen Pryor published “Lads Before the Wind” which chronicled her work with the marine animals at Hawaii’s Sea Life Park. She continued to explore using conditioned reinforcers with other species such as her ponies and dogs with a “dime-store” metal clicker instead of a whistle. The first publishing of “Don’t Shoot The Dog!” in 1984 became a best seller and the word about “clicker training” was out. In 1992, Karen Pryor and Gary Wilkes gave the first clicker training seminar to 250 dog trainers. Since that seminar in the San Francisco area, clicker training has become known and used worldwide in areas such as dog training, horse training, zoos, and marine facilities.

“Clicker training” is a popularized term for operant conditioning using a conditioned reinforcer to teach/train positively. It is a valuable tool in shaping behaviors precisely. The term comes from the widespread use of a popular metal clicker encased in a rectangular plastic box. (These can be obtained from The Clickerpet.com) But the training can be done using other tools. Other conditioned reinforcers that have been used are objects making a unique and distinct noise (hair clip, ballpoint pen, stapler, small metal bottle cap with a “freshness pop up seal”), a small flashlight, a special touch on the side of a dog’s face, or even a thumbs up sign.

There is a distinct difference between an unconditioned and a conditioned reinforcer. An unconditioned or primary reinforcer is something the animal would want even without training. A conditioned or secondary reinforcer is an initially meaningless signal or stimulus that stands for one or more primary reinforcers. The animal, with training, learns to want the conditioned reinforcer. In the training, the conditioned reinforcer is paired directly with a primary reinforcer that the animal does want (such as a treat). The animal then learns that the desired object/treat will come after the sound, for instance, of the conditioned reinforcer. Thus the animal learns that click = treat = something he wants. When the pairing of the click and treat is solid, then the equation becomes click = something he wants. The something the animal wants can ultimately evolve to desire for approval, affection, recognition and/or a sense of accomplishment.

The clicker is a teaching tool and like many other aids in training, once the animal has learned the behavior/task that it was taught with the clicker use, the clicker can be phased out of use. The behavior that was learned is then maintained with praise, approval, and a variable schedule of reinforcement with a primary reinforcer such as a food treat. Then the trainer can use clicker work to teach other behaviors and tasks.

Clicker work or other conditioned reinforcers appear to be a more powerful tool than other methods. Here are some reasons why this is so.

1.      Conditioned reinforcers are used constructively and abundantly. The teaching session is extremely positive with many rewards.

2.      Timing of primary and conditioned reinforcers is extremely accurate. A mistimed “click” can inadvertently reinforce behavior not desired. This encourages trainers to become extremely cognizant of their timing of the clicks.

3.      Trainers must think about their teaching/shaping programs. Successful shaping is taught in small increments. While the trainer must have a clear picture of the ultimate desired behavior, the many steps to achieving it using shaping with conditioned reinforcers must be thought through.

4.      Trainers do not rely on punishment or negative corrections to teach behavior. Clicker work is teaching with positive reinforcements at a very refined level.

5.      Clicker work can be utilized in teaching unlimited behaviors and skills to a very wide variety of beings.

6.      Clickers offer a clear marker signal for a conditioned reinforcer that is new to the animal. It is the uniqueness of the “new” sound that the animal alerts to as opposed to just more verbal babble from the human that they have to sort through! A click is faster than giving a verbal “good dog” and has more scope for its application. When learning a new skill, the dog can be encouraged verbally, but it is the click that signals “That’s right!”.

7.      Clicker work is intellectually stimulating for both the trainer and animal. It encourages both to learn and to want to learn more.

8.      Best of all, it is fun! Learning through pleasure is effective, painless, and lasting.

A trainer who starts to explore the usages of conditioned reinforcers and clicker work in particular can easily become a convert. The ability to teach a variety of behaviors and to a variety of different species is only limited by the trainer’s imagination and patience. Clicker work requires trainers to think, plan, and develop patience. While the behaviors may seem like they take longer to teach, once they are learned properly, there is little need for any problem solving/training. Refinements in behavior (such as a straighter sit, higher jump, or pricking ears) can be taught with clickers. Acknowledging desired behaviors (such as choosing the right glove in directed retrieve, downing quickly in drop on recall) can be positively reinforced at a distance without breaking the flow of the whole exercise. The dog is able to understand and process the click as information that he did the task correctly even while still doing the full exercise.

Fortunately as clicker training increases in popularity, there are numerous resources that people can access for information. Many articles have appeared in various dog magazines. Videos and books are also available. Now thanks to the Internet, there is a plethora of information on various websites devoted to clicker training. Two sites I enjoy are Karen Pryor’s www.clickertraining.com and Gary Wilkes’ www.clickandtreat.com. A newsletter (The Clicker Journal) is also available for clicker trainers. It can be accessed through www.clickertrain.com.

Clicker training can be used with any age of dog from pups in the whelping box to seniors. Puppies and adolescents who are typically unfocused with short attention spans really benefit from clicker work.

Reading about clicker work is no substitute, however, for experience. Experience comes directly from clicking, treating, and evaluating the results constantly. A training journal is very useful to chronicle and evaluate the dog’s progress. Dog training instructors who teach clicker training are available. It is advisable to have an instructor assist a new clicker trainer particularly until correct timing is learned.

Clicker training - a precise way of teaching our dogs positively - is a powerful tool for a thinking handler. Best of all, it is fun for all. The trainer becomes more motivated and stimulated to “train” the dog and the dog quickly becomes a highly educated Happy Dog!

Copyright © 2001 Ruth Kellogg. All rights reserved.

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