Have you heard about clicker training, but don't know what it is? How it got started? Why they are used? What all the fuss is about? And, hey, are they worth it, or is the clicker just another gizmo you'd be forced to juggle, as if the dog, leash, treats and poop bags weren't enough?!
I'll start with some of the history of clicker training, and what it does, and then (in the interest of brevity, so this post stays short enough for you to read and me to write) I'll go into more detail in follow up posts. Like how to use a clicker, and common concerns about clicker training. I'll probably throw in a video at the end, so you can see clicker training in action and decide for yourself what you think of it (though I think trying it with your dog for a few weeks is the best way to give it a true trial).
So, where did clicker training begin? The concept originated around the time of WWII with Marian Kruse and Keller Breland, students of the famous B. F. Skinner. They used clicker training to teach a wide animals including pigeons, cats and dolphins. Its use in training marine mammals took off (instead of a click trainers use the high pitched whistle we now associate with Flipper and Shamu, but the concept is the same), but clicker training still hadn't really made it to dogs.
One behavior expert was using clicker training with dogs though, and in 1992 Karen Pryor put on a seminar in San Diego, California that would change the face of dog training forever. Along with her book, Don't Shoot the Dog, Pryor began to spread awareness of clicker training and the fantastic results it could bring when teaching obedience commands or modifying behavior.
The basic principles of clicker training are quite simple. The "click," that sound made by the clicker, becomes what is known as a conditioned reinforcer. It is a sound that initially means nothing to a dog; it is quite literally just a click. But, after repeated pairings with food rewards, the click begins to take on meaning. It starts to mean "Yes! You got it right!" It means food is coming, even if you can't see it yet. And it means "All done!" that whatever behavior they have been working on is complete.
How does one sound come to mean so much to a dog? That's where the "conditioned" part of conditioned reinforcer comes in. Let's use dolphins as an example. It's one of my favorites, as you know if you've learned clicker training with me. Training a dolphin offers some unique challenges. You can't put a choke collar on a dolphin and make it mind. You can't flip it over and pin it to the ground, exerting your "dominance" over him, the way some famous "trainers" would. (Since we can't express sarcasms well in the written word, let me just insert that here. I do not advocate choke collars or dominating your dog, or any creature for that matter. Sarcastic sneer noted.)
Dolphins also swim much better than we do, which makes it hard for us to be near them when they are performing tricks. Training dogs is starting to sound pretty easy, right? Clicker training (or "marker training" - a more general term that can include other types of sounds like the whistle that marine mammal trainers are likely to use) helps with dolphin training in many ways. First, by giving the dolphins a consistent, easy to recognize cue that means the dolphin has done something right, we improve communication and thus speed up training. Marking the exact moment a dolphin performs also allows the trainer to reward for increments of behavior, not just the final product.
Finally, the whistle acts as a bridge (lots of fancy terms this time!). A bridge (in normal-person language) is a way to increase the amount of time between when the behavior is performed and when the reward is received, without ruining the animal's understanding of why they are being rewarded. Think of a dolphin learning to jump up and touch a ball suspended 20 feet above the pool. (I have no idea about dolphin training, and it's been a while since I've seen a show, so forgive me if my example is totally inaccurate.) It would be nearly impossible to get a fish to the dolphin at the exact moment that he touches the ball, since the dolphin is way out in the middle of the pool (and 20 feet in the air!) and the trainer is stuck on their little platform. If the dolphin doesn't get his fish within a few seconds of performing the behavior, he won't connect the two. Enter marker training (clicker training if you missed all the bouncing around with terminology)! Because the dolphin has been conditioned to know that the whistle means a fish is coming, the trainer blows the whistle at the exact moment the dolphin touches the ball and, bingo! Dolphin makes the connection and learns the new behavior. And you and your friends pay an arm and a leg to see his show.
What does all this mean for you and your dog? Clicker training isn't just a gimmick, but an effective method based on scientific learning principles. Using a clicker allows you to be clear and consistent in your communication about when your dog has done something right, and also allows you to break a behavior into smaller parts as they are learning. And once your dog is conditioned to the clicker, you can afford more time between the time the dog does a behavior and the time your get the reward to him.