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What Is Clicker Training?

Mar 4 / Sally Gutteridge
There’s something very special about clicker training. Whilst it’s given the term training for simplicity, it’s not really training at all but welfare for dogs and in fact all animals who are taught this way. 

The clicker is a marker for a choice the animal makes. It’s a neutral sound until the dog learns it’s associated with a reward but when the association is made, the click is the equivalent of YES! THAT CHOICE EARNED A REWARD. 
Clicker training is an art that can be used by a coach at any level, for amazing results and happy, confident canine students. 
The clicker is linked directly with Karen Pryor clicker training but has been used much earlier. Karen bought it into the forefront of animal training and the clicker has now become a common tool for animal training. It’s not just a dog tool though – because it’s based in learning theory and science. All animals can be taught with a clicker, or any other neutral stimulus if it has been linked to a reward, just as we all learn from positive reinforcement we can all learn from a marker, because it’s simply another branch of learning from consequences. 

A clicker works like Pavlov’s bell. The dog hears the sound and expects the reward. The difference is that the dog is taught to associate a positive reinforcer to the sound before the clicker is used to mark the behaviour. So where Pavlov’s bell was classical conditioning because the dog was showing a physiological response, clicker training for choices is classical to operant conditioning because the dog is showing a behavioural response.

Whilst marking takes the pressure off to an extent, because it stops us worrying about getting the reward to the dog during their desired choice (therefore letting them know via positive reinforcement that it was a good choice) it has its own complexities. We have to move our bodies in ways that are most efficient for teaching, and helping the dog to learn. We also need to get the timing of the marker in at the point our dog makes their choice. A split second is crucial for effective teaching. 

It might feel a bit strange, but it’s a good idea to create new muscle memory if you’re marking with a clicker – before you begin to teach the dog. There are so many things that can prevent clear teaching if we fumble and drop things, miss a choice or hold treats in our hands whilst our dog is learning something new. 

Practicing your clicker speed is a good way to become an excellent coach. As is practicing getting your treats out of your pouch and delivering them cleanly.

For example, you can practice with another person by asking them to say numbers fast and randomly from 1-10 and each time they say 3, click. Or asking them to 5 facial expressions repeatedly or randomly and each time they poke a tongue at you – click. These exercises plus many more imaginative ones can help your brain to click finger become swifter. You can practice getting treats out of your pouch by just dropping them into a nearby bowl. Or if your dog is kibble fed just hand feed their meal one piece after another a couple of times without clicking – it will just loosen your clicker muscles and get you click and treating in a way conducive to speedy, smooth teaching. Remember not to do this around your dog as it can become confusing. 

Making the association between your clicker and the reward should be done clearly. Treats should be small and really tasty and not enough to chew. The point of this is to keep the dog wanting more but prevent satiation – meaning the dog is full or has had enough for now to stops enjoying learning.

The beauty of the click is that we can use it to capture natural choices. It must first be tuned in (meaning the dog has made the connection) then it can be used at any point in any day to reinforce natural choices and behaviours. For example when your dog knows what the clicker means you can carry it on walks and click when they turn to look at you. Or if they usually bark when the postman comes – you can click just before the first bark then reinforce the by clicking and reinforcing as a quick continuous reinforcer until the postman is long gone.

Capturing is exactly what it sounds like. Reinforcing behaviour which occurs naturally without a lure or a prompt. The more a dog makes a choice on their own, the more likely they are to remember that it was reinforced. It can be tempting to ask things of our dogs so we can then reinforce them – but it’s a much better learning experience if we watch and wait whilst they go about their day then click the choices we like. We humans like to try and rush – if we replace the need to act with a quiet and careful observation, we are much more likely to communicate effectively with our dogs, and most importantly to understand them. 

During coaching sessions we reinforce the choices we want our dogs to repeat. 

Capturing is understated in teaching, but clicker training is perfect for capturing and teaching completely natural acts which is why it can be used with any species. Try to consider that the more help a dog gets to make a choice, the more times they will need to make that choice before they have learned it. 

Luring is basically hinting to the dog what we want. Whether you use it or not really depends on how much help your dog needs. Generally high confidence dogs will need little help and we can push them a little further to work it out by sitting back and waiting. Low confidence dogs are a bit different because if we sit back and wait for them to work something out they will feel that pressure greatly and try to leave or end the session. Pushing or putting pressure on a low confidence dog will cause them stress and stress is counterproductive to learning.

This is why we really need a good plan before we go into a coaching session and why when we are teaching something new, scheduling of a click and reward is so crucial for all dogs but it’s really important for low confidence dogs because it prevents them having to think to hard, stops doubt creeping in and keeps their limited confidence high. 
Luring is using a reward to encourage a dog into position so we can then capture the “choice” to get into that position. It’s good if a low confidence dog is faltering or even if a confident dog is not getting the idea. It should be used carefully though and not over-used because a fast and effective capturing session is better for the dog, the learning process and the final result. 

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