Author: Cindy Ludwig, Canine Connection LLC

Photos – Diana Andersen Animalinfo Publications

Clicker Training – Introduction

Clicker training is about far more than simply using a clicker to train your dog. While an essential component of clicker training is the use of a marker signal, key philosophical and scientific principles of learning really define “clicker training.”

This article will describe

  1. the defining characteristics of clicker training
  2. how it differs from other types of training
  3. the uses of clicker training
  4. the advantages it offers over other types of training

Defining Characteristics of Clicker Training

Clicker training is a type of reward-based training.

This form of training is a type of positive reinforcement or reward-based training which includes the use of a marker signal. A marker signal is a signal given to an animal at a precise moment in time to pinpoint exactly which behavior, or part of a behavior will be rewarded. The signal bridges the gap between completion of the desired behavior and delivery of the reward so that the animal knows which specific behavior is being rewarded.

Undesired responses are ignored.

While most animal training includes some degree of positive reinforcement, clicker training is unique in that it is focused on positive reinforcement and excludes correction. Desired responses are marked and rewarded, and incorrect or undesired responses are ignored, never corrected. The reason this works is because animals, like most human beings repeat what they find rewarding and do not repeat what they do not find rewarding.

Clicker trainers use negative punishment.

Clicker trainers do use a form of punishment called negative punishment, which consists of withholding or withdrawing a reward or reinforcement to stop unwanted behavior, but the overarching principle is to set the animal up for success by 1) using a high rate of reinforcement, and 2) adjusting performance criteria to the animal’s responses to keep him challenged but not frustrated. The failure of an animal to respond as desired or expected is interpreted as a need to re-evaluate the training plan rather than correct or punish the animal.

Animal and trainer work as a team.

In clicker training, animals are voluntary and active participants in the learning process. Training is animal-driven as much as it is trainer-driven and consists of a dynamic process of two-way communication between animal and trainer. Each animal is an individual and progresses at its own rate of learning with an individualized training plan.

Clicker training is based on the science of operant conditioning.

Clicker training is a sort of experiential learning in which an animal is encouraged to think, make choices and experiment. In a nutshell, it is operant conditioning, or learning through trial and error in which the animal discovers for himself what works to earn desired consequences. As with people, this sort of kinesthetic learning or learning by doing might be what promotes the long term retention and enthusiasm for what has been learned through clicker training.

Clicker trainers capture and shape behavior.

Clicker trainers use techniques such as capturing and shaping. “Capturing” is a technique whereby a spontaneous behavior is marked with the sound of a click or other marker signal and then rewarded. “Shaping” is a dynamic process in which an animal is rewarded for successive approximations of a goal behavior. It is a process generally used to train more difficult or complex behaviors.

Body movement and food luring are minimized.

In clicker training, body movement and vocalization are minimized to keep communication as clear and “clean” as possible. If any movement prompts are used, they are faded as quickly as possible so they don’t become part of the cue. For example, luring with a food treat may be used to speed up the initial teaching phase of new behavior such as “down,” but any remnant of a hand gesture is quickly eliminated, and luring is done with a target stick rather than food whenever possible.

Food should be used cautiously and judiciously to avoid it becoming a distraction. If an animal is looking at or following food, he is more likely to be focused on the food than what he is doing to earn the reward. Food is kept out of sight during training and delivered only as a reward rather than being used as a bribe. This not only facilitates learning but also prevents creating an animal that will only work for food.