It may work like magic, but this positive reinforcement is rooted in scientific principles of how animals learn

Training by clicking

Posted: Friday, March 30, 2001

What is a clicker?

A clicker is a small hand-held plastic box with a strip of steel encased inside that, when pushed on the free end, makes an unmistakable click sound. The sound is consistently the same.

What is clicker training?

Clicker training is a simple term for a positive reinforcement training system based on operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a set of scientific principles describing how animals learn in the natural world.

All living beings repeat behaviors that are rewarding to them. These are principles that work with humans, young and old alike, (teen-agers and husbands) as well as other animals.

Clicker trainers are developing ways to use this new technology with police patrol dogs, service and hearing dogs, puppies -- even before weaning -- for competition obedience and agility in hunting, field trials and tracking, in the breed show ring, for good manners, for dog classes and in the home.

To get started, you must associate the clicker with something the dog finds as pleasurable reinforcement. It can be toys, petting, walks or car rides, but food works best.

Food makes it easy for the dog to understand, and it makes an excellent teaching tool. Together you and your dog will learn a new way of interacting.

Clicker training is an extremely forgiving system. If the timing of your click is too soon or too late, there is no harm done. It just takes the dog a bit longer to understand what behavior you are looking for. It is not at all detrimental as a poorly timed leash correction can be, causing lack of confidence, confusion and mistrust between you and your dog.

There are many fringe benefits with clicker training, the best being the bond between you and your dog and how it increases your dog's confidence. Shortly after you begin, you will see your dog offering behaviors, trying to find the one that will earn it a click.

It is obviously fun for the dog and great fun for you, the trainer. It gives the dog the opportunity to wear the training hat for short periods of time. You will see it do things to try to get you to click. The dog will continue to repeat the behaviors you have captured with the click and treat.

Then, you put the training hat back on and decide if you want to further alter, or shape, the behavior you currently have. If not, it is time to put it on cue, or give the behavior a name. For "sit," you wait until the dog is in the process of sitting, say "sit," then click and treat.

What is nice about using the clicker, or any reward marker for that matter -- the dolphin trainers use a whistle -- is that you can still mark the desired behavior even when it might take you a short time to get the reward to the animal.

For example, when a trainer is training a dolphin to jump higher out of the water, there is no way to get the fish reward to the dolphin at the exact highest point of the jump. However, the trainer can whistle at that exact moment to communicate the information to the dolphin and then give the fish reward when the dolphin swims over for it.

Try this at home:

Get some treats and a ballpoint pen that makes a noise when you click it. Click your pen and give your dog a treat.

Do this several times. Now click your pen and wait a few seconds to see if your dog looks to you for another treat. If so, you are ready.

Be patient and wait for your dog to sit. Eventually he will, because it is easier to look up at you and the treat when he is sitting. The second his bottom hits the floor, click your pen and give him a treat. Now move so he will get up -- if he hasn't already -- and repeat the process. It takes most dogs less than three minutes to become sitting machines, offering sit after sit in order to make the click happen to earn the treat.

This is why it has many times been called "clicker magic." When the dog learns it is in control of making the click happen, that is when the real fun and learning begins.

Once your dog acquires a clicker-trained behavior, unless you add new rules, the dog will have that behavior for a lifetime. When the dog knows several behaviors, you no longer need to click or to praise each one; you can reinforce once for a whole series of behaviors.

Eventually, you'll find you are getting out your clicker only to sharpen up a behavior, teach the dog something new or just to have fun with your dog. Clicker- training is fun for both of you.

If you are interested in learning more about clicker training and operant conditioning, check out the book "Don't Shoot the Dog," by Karen Pryor, her Web site at or call the Peninsula Dog Obedience Group at 262-6846 for dates and times of a free clicker demonstration.

Faith Hays is the president of Peninsula Dog Obedience Group.

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