If you own or ever owned a dog, you might remember trying to train that dog to obey your commands. Most people might even more vividly remember that dog ignoring them or doing the complete opposite of what they asked. Even more frustrating, you have probably looked around and seen perfectly trained dogs in your neighborhood. The question becomes: what have their owners done that I’m not doing?
After doing some research, I’ve found that one of the most popular methods for training animals, and in particular dogs, is what is commonly known as “clicker training”. The name comes from the main tool used – a clicker. The sound it makes resembles the noise made by a bottle cap when it is pressed. It is effective because it is distinct and easy for the dog to recognize, even from far away. So, how does clicker training work? The idea is based on the principles of operant conditioning, which was first written about by B.F. Skinner. Clicker training as we know it was popularized by Karen Pryor, who first used it in training dolphins.
Clicker training is the use of a plastic clicker as a conditioned reinforcement (i.e., something the dog has learned to enjoy as a reward, as opposed to a primary reinforcement – something the dog naturally enjoys, like food). Clicker training works by associating the sound of the clicker (a sharp click) with the receipt of a reward (typically food).This is accomplished by first “charging” the clicker. During this phase, the owner will click and then give the dog a treat. The dog does not have to do anything at this point to receive his reward. By repeatedly clicking and treating, the dog begins to connect the click to the food. Once that is done, the clicker can be used as a marker that lets the dog know that because of what he was doing at the sound of the click he will be rewarded with food sometime in the near future.
There are two ways to begin “shaping” a desirable behavior (like sitting): you can use a lure to make the dog perform the behavior or you can try to capture the behavior as the dog performs it naturally. Both are effective and they can don’t have to be used exclusively.
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Luring can be accomplished by using a treat to make your dog perform a behavior. In the example of sitting, a treat would be lifted over the dog’s head and back, until the dog’s head lifts and butt drops. The benefit of using the lure is the time savings. You don’t have to sit around waiting for the dog to naturally perform some behavior you want.
On the other hand, you have the “capturing” method. The benefit of capturing behaviors is that you can capture any cute or funny or useful behavior your dog just happens to perform. For instance, let’s say your dog spins around (for what seems like no apparent reason). You would simply click the behavior, letting the dog know that spinning is something you like and he will now receive a treat for doing it. Eventually, the dog will figure out that when he spins, it makes you happy and he receives a treat. He will then start spinning at random times in an effort to receive treats. At the point when the dog starts offering up the desirable behavior on his own, you can start to introduce a cue, either verbal or otherwise (typically a hand signal).
Ultimately, you will be able to give a command to your dog and watch as he eagerly performs the desired behavior. There are multiple benefits to clicker training. First and foremost, it allows your dog to learn. At times, you will be able to actually see your dog trying to figure out what he or she can do to get that click. He or she will then go through a list of tricks they know to figure out what you’re looking for, some of which you may not have seen before.
Another benefit of using the clicker is the ability to communicate to the dog at the exact moment that he performs the desirable behavior. Some people use this same method, but with a verbal reinforcement – “Good dog!”, for instance. While this can be effective, the length of time it takes to say it can confuse the dog as to what behavior you are rewarding. Also, if you say the correct command, but with a different inflection or tone of voice than what the dog has learned, you might not actually be reinforcing the behavior. Lastly, once you understand the basics of clicker training, this method is a cheap, effective of way of training your dog to learn all sorts of fun and useful behaviors.
If you’ve tried and failed to train your dog in the past, or if you plan on training a dog in the future, do yourself a favor and give Clicker Training a try.Read More →