Clicker training originated in 1940 with Marian Breland Bailey and Keller Breland, who as graduate students of psychologist and eminent behaviorist B.F.Skinner while working in a lab taught wild-caught pigeons to “bowl” (push a ball with their beaks) during military research. After World War ll Marian and Keller bought a farm and founded Animal Behavior Enterprises (ABE). Bob Bailey joined in the 1960’s, after leaving his position as director of Training for the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program. When Keller’s dogs would win blue ribbons at shows, the other competitors were much more interested in knowing who had bred the dog, rather than what training methods Keller had used. It would be several decades more before clicker training and positive reinforcement methods would begin to catch on in the dog training community. After Keller’s death in 1965, Bob and Marian ran ABE together, and are well known in the dog training world because of their world famous “chicken camps,” or, by their proper name, operant conditioning workshops. Thirty years later, in 1992, Karen Pryor, Gary Wilkes, Gary Priest, and Ingrid Kang Shahallenberger held the first Don’t Shoot the Dog! Clicker training seminar in the Bay Area. That’s when things really took off in the world of clicker training.
What Is Clicker Training for dogs?
“Clicker training” is a fun dog training method based on rewarding any desirable behavior instantly with the sound of a metal spring little box that when the thumb squeezes down on it makes a metallic click sound. This clicker sound is referred to as a conditioned (secondary) reinforcer. The clicker sound, once learned by pairing food with the click a number of times becomes a signal to the dog that the behavior was correct and a treat (primary reward) is soon coming. This was Ivan Pavlov’s major finding with his slobbering dogs. The dogs began to drool when they heard the food bowls clanging, even before the food was present. At first the sound has no meaning, but after a number of pairings with food, the dog will react to the click in nearly the same way he reacts to food.
Many of the following Tips for Getting Started with the Clicker are excerpts and suggestions from Karen Pryor
Clicker training is a terrific, science-based way to communicate with your pet. You can clicker train any kind of animal, of any age. Puppies love it. Old dogs learn new tricks. You can clicker-train cats, birds, and other pets as well. Here are some simple tips to get you started.
Push and release the springy end of the clicker, making a two-toned click. Then treat. Keep the treats small.
Click DURING the desired behavior, not after it is completed. The timing of the click is crucial. Don’t be dismayed if your pet stops the behavior when it hears the click. The click ends the behavior. Give the treat after that; the timing of the treat is not important.
Click when your dog or other pet does something you like. Begin with something easy that the pet is likely to do on its own. (Ideas: sit; come toward you; touch your hand with its nose; lift a foot; touch and follow a target object such as a pencil or a spoon.)
Click once (in-out.) If you want to express special enthusiasm, increase the number of treats, not the number of clicks.
Keep practice sessions short. Much more is learned in three sessions of five minutes each than in an hour of boring repetition. You can get dramatic results, and teach your pet many new things, by fitting a few clicks a day here and there in your normal routine.
Fix bad behavior by clicking good behavior. Click the puppy for relieving itself in the proper spot. Click for paws on the ground, not on the visitors. Instead of scolding for making noise, click for silence. Cure leash-pulling by clicking and treating those moments when the leash happens to go slack.
Click for voluntary (or accidental) movements toward your goal. You may coax or lure the animal into a movement or position, but don’t push, pull, or hold it. Let the animal discover how to do the behavior on its own. If you need a leash for safety’s sake, loop it over your shoulder or tie it to your belt.
Don’t wait for the “whole picture” or the perfect behavior. Click and treat for the small steps towards the goal behavior in the right direction. You want the dog to sit, and it starts to crouch in back: click. You want it to come when called, and it takes a few steps your way: click.
Keep raising your goal. As soon as you have a good response- for example, when touching their retrieving article, start asking for more. Wait until they touch it stronger and or pick it up. Then click. This is called “shaping” a behavior. The practice of shaping small steps to finally retrieving the article to you is also known as successive approximation.
When your animal has learned to do something for clicks, it will begin showing you the behavior spontaneously, trying to get you to click. Now is the time to begin offering a cue, such as a word or a hand signal. Start clicking for that behavior if it happens during or after the cue. Start ignoring that behavior when the cue wasn’t given.
Don’t order the animal around; clicker training is not command-based. If your pet does not respond to a cue, it is not disobeying; it just hasn’t learned the cue completely. Find more ways to cue it and click it for the desired behavior. Try working in a quieter, less distracting place for a while. If you have more than one pet, separate them for training, and let them take turns.
Carry a clicker and “catch” cute behaviors like cocking the head, chasing the tail, or holding up one foot. You can click for many different behaviors, whenever you happen to notice them, without confusing your pet.
If you get mad, put the clicker away. Don’t mix scolding, leash-jerking, and correction training with clicker training; you will lose the animal’s confidence in the clicker and perhaps in you.
If you are not making progress with a particular behavior, you are probably clicking too late. Accurate timing is important. Get someone else to watch you, and perhaps to click for you, a few times.
Above all, have fun. Clicker training is a wonderful way to enrich your relationship with any learner.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Why does clicker training work?
Clicker training uses a distinct and consistent signal to mark a desired behavior in real time and then follows that signal with a motivating reward. Because animals understand precisely which action earned the click and their reward, they learn new behaviors quickly, easily, and enthusiastically.
Why is clicker training better than just using my voice, positive attention, praise, food, or other training methods?
Lots of important reasons. The click pinpoints the behavior exactly so your dog will learn desirable behavior amazingly quickly—often from one, two, or three clicks. The clicker provides a consistent, non-emotional marker so your dog always receives the same information. Your dog has been hearing your voice for a long time and often tunes it out. Also your voice changes depending on your mood and doesn’t display the consistent quality that a clicker does. The clicker is also distinct from other signals in the environment.
The information the click provides is retained. Behavior is remembered from one training session to the next, so training sessions can be short and flexibly designed. Also, unlike word cues, clicker training does not convey emotionally loaded approval or disapproval to the animal—it is simply information the dog can use to earn a reward or try again.
And because clicker training doesn’t rely on punishment, force, aversive methods, sprays, or choke collars to get results, it is the only method of training we know of that is safely and effectively used with puppies’ even weeks old. As a result:
Basic obedience, good manners and fun games can be easily self-taught even in busy family households, where time is short and schedules hectic.
Training can be woven into daily activities including walking to school, making dinner, or even watching TV
Everyone in the family—children and adults—can participate and share in the fun both with puppies and adult dogs
Breeders can raise puppies that are already “clicker wise” and home-ready.
What results should I expect and when?
We often talk about the “lightbulb moment.” It is the moment when your dog and you connect through the sound of the clicker. Communication has been established and it is as exciting for the animal as it is for the trainer. Most dogs will have the lightbulb moment—you can see it in their eyes—in lesson one! Teaching fun but simple behaviors like shaking hands or coming when called can be accomplished in one or two sessions. More complex behaviors can be trained a piece at a time, building or shaping the action over a series of sessions. For example, teaching your dog to “Find the Remote Control to Your TV” may take a several sessions, yet each session will only be 5-15 minutes long!
Do I have to continue clicking and treating forever?
No. Clicker training is used to teach/learn new behaviors. Once the behavior is learned, the clicker isn’t needed any more for that behavior—although praise and treats will always be appreciated. Whenever you want to train a new behavior, or fine-tune an old one, use the clicker.
Is a lot of experience required to clicker train successfully?
Absolutely not. (Sometimes it even gets in the way.) Clicker training is easy to learn with the right instruction. A part of clicker training that may take some practice is timing the clicks to capture the exact behavior you are seeking. Clicker training is so forgiving and so much fun for everyone that you don’t have to worry about mistakes. They won’t interfere with training in the long run.
Will clicker training work with my dog?
Yes. Clicker training works with all breeds, all ages, all types of dogs, purebred and rescue, champions and house companions. With deaf dogs, substitute a light flash for the clicker.
My dog isn’t food motivated, what do I do?
Food is the most popular reward, but anything your dog loves can be used as a reward. Throwing a tennis ball or a quick game of tug are both highly motivating rewards.
If you would like to use food treats, be sure that your tidbits are especially yummy (bits of hotdogs, for example) and that your dog’s meals do not immediately precede a training session.
Won’t my dog get fat if I feed him every time I train him?
No. Tiny amounts pieces of food are used a treats. Small is important because you want your dog to be able to eat it and be “ready to play clicker” some more. Clicker training is also good exercise and highly stimulating. Dogs work when they clicker train! You may also wish to substitute a clicker session for one of your dog’s regular mealtimes.
Can a dog that has been trained “traditionally” be “crossed over” to clicker training?
Absolutely. Crossover trainers are often amazed at the change that comes over their dogs when they switch to clicker training. Previously hesitant and shy dogs become enthusiastic and creative learners. To try clicker training with a dog previously trained with traditional methods, don’t begin with a behavior the dog already knows—try something completely new and fun.
Join us Saturdays February 18th and 25th for Clicker Class 101 and 102, respectively, to begin clicker training with your dog. Call our office at 412.364.4122 or register online.