Clicker training is a form of operant conditioning – operant conditioning was first identified by B.F. Skinner; it’s effectiveness as an animal training technique was discovered by both Skinner and his students, Marian Bailey and Keller Breland, during an experiment using pigeons – that uses a clicker as a behaviour marker; this clicker is associated with a positive reward, and it produces a fast enough response to promptly mark a behaviour and to help the dog, or other target animal, catch on more quickly to what it’s being asked to perform. There are two primary components to the clicker training method and to using the method successfully.
The first component is choosing a motivator. It’s important to remember that every dog is different. Not all dogs are going to respond to every motivator and not all dogs are going to respond in the same way. For example, your average Border Collie is going to exhibit different levels of drive and focus than your average Chihuahua. It’s also important to remember that even though motivators, or treats, may fall within the same category, your dog may respond to one and not the other; a food motivated dog may work for a piece of cooked chicken but may turn his nose up at a store-bought treat. Let’s look at the three types of motivators.
Though for some dogs, it depends on the treat as to whether or not they’ll work for it, others will go to great lengths for bits and pieces of their everyday kibble. Some dogs prefer store-bought treats whilst many prefer cuts of meat, such as bits of hot dog or ground beef. Fussy eaters may find their fancy in treats such as chicken or duck liver. But food is versatile – it can be cut up into bite-size pieces, ideal for ‘clicking and treating,’ and it appeals to the vast majority of dogs – and in the end, seems to be a primary source of motivation.
Another primary source of motivation, and a secondary source for many, is a good toy. Although many dogs respond very well to food, it seems an equal number of dogs respond just as well to a good game of ‘tug’ or ‘fetch’ after performing a command, or series of commands, correctly.
The third source of motivation, though not as common as food or toys, is praise. Some dogs will work very, very well for a ‘good boy’ or ‘good girl’ and a scratch behind the ears, sometimes disregarding food or toys completely.
In the end, regardless of what motivates your dog, it’s important to roll with it. At least in the beginning, don’t try forcing a food-motivated dog into becoming a hundred and ten percent praise-oriented, and if a dog doesn’t respond to food, no matter the food you’re offering, don’t continue to shove the treat in your dog’s face. Training should be a positive experience for both you and your dog, and going with what motivates your dog, be it praise, toys or treats, will result in a more relaxed and enjoyable experience for the both of you.
The second component can be split into two parts – associating the ‘click’ and the ‘treat’ and keeping the dog engaged.
Associating the ‘Click’ and the ‘Treat’
Different people choose to associate the click and treat differently. Some prefer to dive right in, asking that the dog perform a behaviour before clicking, treating and repeating; others choose to approach the association more steadily, clicking without asking the dog to perform and immediately following the click with a treat.
My preferred method has always been a combination. I start out by clicking and treating without asking the dog to perform a command, simply to associate the sound with the motivator of choice. But as the dog begins to get the hang of it, I start associating the click and treat with eye contact; an expectant dog will often look ‘expectantly’ up at you, and that’s the time to click, treat and reward that eye contact. Eye contact can provide a strong foundation for focus work and for assuring the dog is concentrated enough on you, the handler, to begin working. It is safe to assume that a dog who gives reliable eye contact before and after each click and treat has learnt the association.
Keeping the Dog Engaged
It’s important to keep the dog engaged. You don’t want to work with a dog that’s neither focused on you nor on the work that you’re doing. Depending on the dog, keeping a dog engaged can be simple or a little bit tricky. This is where both choosing the right motivator for your dog and learning your dog as an individual come in handy.
Choosing the right motivator for your dog will ensure that your dog is ready and willing to work for the reward. You should be as engaged in the motivator as your dog seems to be. If it’s your dog’s favourite treat, don’t hesitate to go the length to pretend to snack on it and tell your dog how yummy it is. If it’s your dog’s favourite toy, be as excited to play with it as your dog is; maybe even toss it a couple times or drag it along the ground to peak your dog’s interest before you start your training session. You don’t want to be so over the top that your dog is too excited to focus, but you do want to remain enthused and positive about the training session. You don’t only want to associate the behaviour with a reward, but the training session, too!
Learning your dog as an individual can also help you keep your dog engaged. You will learn your dog’s stamina, when starting out, for how long he or she can remain engaged in a training session. Regular training sessions should help improve your dog’s focus, but it’s important to learn your dog’s capacity so that you don’t overdo it and start associating your training sessions with negativity and frustration.
Choosing the length of a session is also very important. If your dog can only go for five minutes, then don’t start out trying to go ten or fifteen; as stated earlier, a dog’s focus will increase with the amount of training he or she receives. Any number of five to ten minute training sessions throughout the day will prove very effective, and keeping these training sessions short and successful will make them fun and rewarding for both you and your dog.
Bear in mind, also, that you want to make a training session rewarding. If your dog is food motivated, use a special treat that comes out during training sessions and only training sessions. For a toy motivated dog, use their favourite ‘special’ toy that they only get to play with during or after a training session. Play the ‘jackpot’ game and intermittently reward your dog with extra tidbits of food or an extra toss of the ball during a game of fetch. Keep it fun, light and interesting!
The key thing to remember about clicker training is that you are using the clicker to shape and reinforce certain behaviours. In order to produce the best results, you should click the instant your dog performs the command. For example, say you’re teaching your dog to ‘sit.’ As soon as your dog’s rump hits the ground, click and treat. If you’re teaching your dog to ‘lie down,’ as soon as he or she is in the ‘down’ position, click and treat. Ultimately, your dog will learn to associate the behaviour with the command and will learn to work for that click. Try This: Clicker Heroes 2