How many people have ever heard of clicker training before? Chances are if you work with dogs at all, you know what it is. But there are many people out there that don’t know what it is. They may have heard of it, but can’t figure out how clicking a small box will make a dog do anything.
 
Well, it’s simple. Clicker training is a form of Operant Conditioning. For those of you who don’t know what Operant Conditioning is, its simply a form of learning in which behavior is strengthened when it’s followed by reinforcement and weakend when followed by punishment. However, there really isn’t any punishment involved in clicker training, it’s all positive reinforcement.
 
The clicker itself is simply a little box that makes noise when you press down on the metal tab. It is inexpensive and comes in various shapes and sizes. To become important, it is paired with food rewards. In other words, it becomes a secondary reinforcer. The food reward is the primary reinforcer. A secondary reinforcer is a promise of the primary reinforcer. So put simply, you click.. and the dog knows he’s getting a treat. To introduce the clicker to your dog, you need to charge it. To do this you simply give the dog a treat and click at the exact same time. The dog will learn that the click means food. To charge the clicker effeciently, you need to click and reward 10 times in a row. The dog doesn’t have to do any behaviors to charge the clicker, he simply has to accept the food. It’s a good idea to charge the clicker before each training session.
 
The clicker is important because it marks certain behaviors that the trainer/owner wants to achieve, or reinforce. With out it, it would be difficult to tell the dog exactly what’s expected. Timing of the click is incredibly important, however. For example, if you want to teach a dog to beg.. you may start by luring the dog into that position with a treat and then click and reward, called "Assisted" clicker training. When the dog hears the click, he knows he’s doing the right behavior and will get the reward, but you have to click and reward at the exact moment the dog goes into that position. That takes practice. You could also wait for the dog to offer the behavior on his own, and then click and reward, called "Pure" clicker training. Clicker training’s process of learning is faster than conventional training, and most dogs love the challange.
 
Here is a game you can try to teach you why clicker training works. This game requires at least two people, but is more fun in a group. It’s also a fun party game….
 
                     The Training Game
 
The objective of this game is to have the "dog" act out a behavior that the "trainer" wants with very little communication.
 
1. Pick someone in your group to be the "dog", and someone else to be the "trainer". Write down a command on a piece of paper while the "dog" is in another room. Fold the paper with the command on it and let everyone see it except for the "dog." Let the "dog" out of the room and tell him to roam the house. In this part of the game, the "trainer" is only allowed to say NO everytime the "dog" doesn’t do the behavior. When the dog does something close to the behavior, the "trainer" says nothing. For example: say you want the "dog" to go to the center of the room and spin in circles, any time the "dog" isn’t in the center of the room, you say NO. When the "dog" goes into the center of the room, the "trainer" doesn’t say anything at all. If the dog is in the center of the room, but not moving in circles, the "trainer" again says NO. This exercise will show that just telling the dog what not to do doesn’t work. Chances are that the "dog" will become frustrated and give up.
 
2. Now the trainer can only use a clicker to encourage the dog. This time no words are spoken by the "trainer" or the "dog." But the "trainer" is allowed to shape the "dog’s" behavior into the desired behavior with the clicker. For example: Using the same example in 1, if the "dog" goes into the center of the room, the "trainer" clicks. If the "dog" does anything that’s not a part of the finished behavior, the "trainer" does nothing. Eventually the "dog" will get the idea that going into the center of the room and spinning in a circle is the desired behavior. Once the desired behavior is completed, everyone should clap and praise the "dog."
 
3. The third step is using both NO and the clicker together to get the desired behavior. When the "dog" does anything that’s not a part of the finished behavior, then the "trainer" says NO, but if the "dog" does do something in relation to the final behavior, the "trainer" clicks. You will notice that using this method is often the fastest. Again, once the "dog" has completed the desired behavior, everyone should praise him/her.
 
Make sure to switch roles of "dog" and "trainer" to give everyone a chance to play. Try this game with your friends and family, and please share your experiences with me. I’d like to read the funny stories that come about. I know this game will give you, especially the person playing the dog, a better understanding of how dogs learn and react to commands. 
 
So there you have it. Clicker training is Operant Conditioning at work. So who came up with this idea? Well his name was B. F. Skinner. He wasn’t always very popular because of his scientific experiments with dogs. He was known for placing dogs in boxes and watching them try to get out. Each of the boxes had a lever or pedal of some kind that would open the door from the inside. The dog was locked in there until he could figure out on his own how to get out. He first started talking about using a clicker, which he called a "cricket" in 1951. His lab assitant Marian Breland and her first husband, Keller, started using a clicker and the principals of Operant Conditioning to train a variety of animals. They did a lot of work for the U.S. Defense Department involving behaviors performed by dolphins, seagulls, and cats.
 
Around the same time that Skinner was working on Operant Conditioning, seaquariums were also becoming popular. Marine trainers couldn’t train dolphins and killer whales using a leash and collar, so they used Operant Conditioning. Marine trainers use whistles instead of clickers but the principals are the same.
 
A lady by the name of Karen Pryor, author of Don’t Shoot the Dog, was a marine mammal trainer in Hawaii who started out as one of Skinner’s graduate assistants. As she describes in her book, she found her training techniques slipping into her interactions with family and friends. Realizing the techniques had applications far beyond seaquariums, she began lecturing to diverse groups interested in animal behavior. In association with dog trainer Gary Wilkes, she brought clicker training to the world of dog training. Clicker-trained dogs are now winning in confirmation, obedience, and agility rings, as well as at hunting and herding trials.
 
This method is easy to use, and very effective. There is no punishment, so the dog does not have to feel threatend or scared. As many of you have probably found out, just because you punish a dog doesn’t mean he’ll quit the behavior all together, especailly when your not around. So the objective is to teach your dog what the right thing to do is.. instead of what the wrong thing to do is. This way your dog is less frustrated, and happier. He can practice a behavior that is acceptable, and he won’t be confused and do the wrong thing. Like any other method of training, consistency and routine is very important to achieve the desired results.
 
While clicker training isn’t all that difficult for some behaviors, it is still a bit of an art form to be mastered. As with anything, practice makes perfect. If you don’t have a lot of experience with training dogs, then don’t try to teach your dog advanced behaviors with clicker training or any other method, as this could confuse your dog. Leave the advanced commands to us professionals. However, if you have no experience, clicker training is a realitively easy way to teach your pooch some basic commands and tricks.
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