There are various styles and types of clicker; from the more usual box clicker to the i-click and even an electronic one which has different tones and volumes. When the ‘tongue’ or button on a clicker is pressed it produces a click-click sound. This sound is unique and is partly why the clicker can be so effective in teaching animals. Dogs, cats, horses, guinea pigs, pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits, rat, mice, iguanas and many more species have been successfully trained using a clicker.
The clicker can be a very fast and effective method of training, which can produce an animal that is capable of problem solving. The clicker enables us to use operant conditioning to effectively train any species that we want. A word can be used almost as effectively, but it doesn’t always sound the same, and it isn’t devoid of emotion in the same way that the clicker is. A whistle can be used (but use a gundog one of a known pitch so that you can replace it exactly), a light/torch can be used to teach deaf dogs or you could use a ‘thumbs up’ signal and so on.
How it Works
Once an animal has been conditioned to a clicker, the clicker can be used to indicate to the dog exactly which behaviour has earned him a reward. It effectively ‘marks’ the behaviour we like. I think it helps to think of the clicker as a camera, taking a picture of the exact behaviour that we want, and enables us to communicate this to the dog. It’s much more effective than saying ‘good dog’ as saying good dog takes time and in that time the dog can have shown several behaviours; which one were we rewarding? Using ‘good dog’ isn’t as ‘clean’ as using a clicker and can cause confusion in the dog’s mind.
The clicker needs to be ‘charged up’ using a reward that the dog finds reinforcing, this can be food, toys or whatever (and will depend on the dog!). Often in the early stages, food is easier to use as throwing a toy or having a game reduces the number of repetitions that can occur in any given time. Ideally, in the early stages, the dog should be rewarded every 6 seconds or so.
The clicker is for teaching new behaviours and, when the behaviour has been thoroughly learned and is ‘on cue’, the clicker can be faded out.
So what’s so special about the clicker?
· The clicker accurately identifies the correct behaviour. It helps use to isolate exactly what we want e.g. a sit with the dog sitting square with all paws on the floor, looking at us, rather than a sit where the dog is flopped onto one hip and is lifting one paw.
· The click sound is like a photograph of the behaviour which is stored in the dog’s short-term memory so he has a mental picture of what he was doing when he heard the click.
· The sound of the click is always followed by a reward. Rewarding the behaviour makes the dog want to repeat it.
· The dog works out what he needs to do to make the click happen, to receive another treat, so the dog is trying to ‘make the click happen’ by doing what the trainer wants.
· It gives the dog a good reason for paying attention to its owner, but it is not used to attract the dog’s attention, it is used to ‘mark’ the moment the dog gives us attention.
· The absence of a click can convey as much as the sound of the click does, because it can encourage the dog to try something else to make the click happen.
· The clicker works well at a distance. It is impractical to try and toss a treat into a dog’s mouth at the exact moment a desirable behaviour occurs. The clicker bridges the gap between the instant the dog performs the correct response and the time it takes to actually deliver the treat.
· The clicker can take your dog’s mind off the actual reinforcement. Some dogs are so focussed on the food that they cannot learn new behaviours in the presence of food reinforcers until the clicker is established.
· The clicker helps to define the end of the behaviour. For example, when teaching a dog to stay, delaying the click encourages the dog to remain in one spot until he hears a click and receives his reward.
· Clicker trained dogs have great self confidence (because they are not afraid to experiment) and great problem solving abilities.
The Clicker Process
1. Get the behaviour
2. Mark it (i.e. ‘click’ it. The click is a reward marker, it means a reward is coming)
3. Reward it (e.g. give a treat, ideally something tasty, small, soft and easily swallowed)
Remember, ‘Click’ means 3 things:
1. Yes, that is the right behaviour.
2. A reward is coming
3. It ends the behaviour (so it doesn’t matter if the dog drops the dumbbell when you click or gets up out of the stay – the click has already told the dog which behaviour was correct)
Other things to remember:
· Click (in-out/click-click) first, then reward.
· A click guarantees a reward will follow, even if you click the wrong thing or click by mistake.
· The click does enable a short delay between the click and the treat (which can build anticipation) and makes it easier to get the treats off of the trainer’s body.
· One click, one reward, never multiple click.
· If you want to express your joy for an extra-special response – give just one click but give multiple treats (one after the other not all at once) with enthusiastic vocal and physical praise.
· The click ends the behaviour. It does not matter what the dog does between hearing the click and receiving the treat.
To avoid a dog becoming confused or ‘switching off’ during a clicker training session, it is important to maintain the dog’s interest and involvement in the learning process by working on a high frequency of reinforcement, i.e. clicking and treating often to encourage the dog to keep trying.
Clicker training is mentally tiring for the dog, so keep session short to begin with. If your dog is not making progress and your rate of reinforcement is dropping, then make the criterion that you are working on easier. Once the dog has started to be successful at that criterion, move onto the next, but don’t make the jump too large.
Before we introduce our dogs to the clicker…
Familiarise yourself with the different types of clicker and use whichever you are comfortable with.
When you press the clicker, you should only be making a click-click noise; there should not be any movement of the clicker visible to the dog (i.e. it’s not a TV remote or a car central-locking key). Don’t click it near a dog’s ears.
Practise holding the clicker and some spare treats in the same hand, so that your other hand is free to take and throw a treat. Also practise having the dog’s lead looped over the arm of your clicker hand – the lead is only for security purposes and when you are at home and in a secure, distraction free environment, you do not need to have the dog on its lead.
Practise delivering a treat from your hand either into the dog’s mouth either directly or by throwing; and also dropping a treat onto the floor.
Timing of the ‘click’ is very important. What you click (and then treat) is what you are training your dog to repeat. So the timing of the click should be the precise movement that you want your dog to remember and repeat. Click the action, not after it has ended. Don’t worry about occasionally clicking the wrong thing (we all do it), but you must give your dog a treat (a ‘click’ always guarantees a treat), and then ‘undo’ the wrong click by ensuring you follow it with several correct clicks & treats.
To practise your timing:
· Bounce a tennis ball on the floor and click at precisely the same moment as the ball hits the floor. Click every bounce. Then try clicking as the ball reaches the top of its bounce.
· Bounce a tennis ball off a wall and click as the ball hits the floor. You can also do this the other way round and bounce the ball off the floor onto the wall and click as the ball hits the wall.
With each of these methods, if your timing is good, you will not hear the ball hit the ground as your click will occur at exactly the same moment. If you are hearing the ball hit the floor or wall, then you need to work more on your timing.
Getting started with clicker training
Step 1. "Charge up" your clicker
· Click the clicker once (in-out) and give your dog a treat from your hand.
Hint: Use something your dog really likes at first. Small pieces of soft, easily-swallowed yummy food (hot dogs, cheese etc) are best because the dog can enjoy it and be ready for the next thing quickly.
· Repeat this until your dog reacts to the clicker (by startling, pricking her ears or suddenly looking for the treat).
· Now you are ready to start teaching a behaviour
Technical note: This is called "establishing a secondary reinforcer" but most people call it "charging up the clicker.
Step 2. Getting the behaviour
There are various methods of ‘getting’ a new behaviour, including luring, shaping, capturing, eliciting and targeting. I prefer to use shaping, so I will click for each tiny increment (criterion) that the dog offers that will take us to the target behaviour. So if I want the dog to sit from a stand, I will look for the slight shift of the weight backwards, the bend of the stifle and hock joints, the lowering of the back end etc.
Step 3. Add a Cue Word
· When your dog is repeating this new behaviour/response reliably, to the point where you can predict when she’s about to do it, start adding a cue.
· For example, if you know she’s about to sit, say "Sit". If you know she’s about to lift her paw, say "Wave!"
· Match this cue immediately before this behaviour many times.
Hint: dogs don’t know what "commands" are. But your dog will learn that if she performs this behaviour when she hears this cue, she’ll get a reward.
· Warning: if you get in the habit of repeating the cues, your dog will think the cue is "Sit-sit-sit", and she’ll always wait for you to say it three times before responding!
Step 4. Test the Cue
· Try saying the cue word. If your dog responds correctly, click and give her a "jackpot" — a whole bunch of really good treats!
Hint: Whenever you really like something your dog does, identify it with one click and reward it with more or better treats.
· If she doesn’t do the action when you say the cue word, you were introducing the cue word too soon. Work on more repetitions for a while longer.
· If you’ve given the cue and the dog doesn’t respond correctly straight away, don’t repeat the cue or leave it open for the dog to choose when to do it – withdraw the signal, turn away, then return to your dog and repeat an earlier step to achieve a successful response.
Step 5. Ignore Un-Cued Behaviours
· When she’s reliably performing the behaviours when you say the cue, stop clicking & treating her for doing it at other times. Just ignore these "spontaneous" behaviours. Continue to click & treat when she does it on cue. This helps to put the behaviour ‘on cue’ only.
Note 1: You might find that your dog starts doing this trick a lot right after you stop rewarding her. This is normal. It’s called an "extinction burst". (You probably do the same thing when a button stops working or your car won’t start. Instead of trying something else, you just push the button several times, or turn the key several times, before you give up!).
Note 2: Capturing is a good way to control unwanted behaviours, like barking or jumping up on you by putting them on cue. But be ready for the "extinction burst" (see Note 1). To keep unwanted behaviours under control, it’s good to give the cue and reward the barking or jumping up behaviour every once in a while - have a little barking or jumping session!
Step 6. Generalise It
· Now teach your dog that this cue will work everywhere. Move to different locations in your house and try it. Go outside and try it. Try it with the leash on, and with it off. Try it in the car, in the park, and at the vet’s.
Hint: You may need to go back a few steps, maybe even back to Step 2, if the distraction levels are too high.
Hint: you’ll want to make the rewards bigger for each new accomplishment.
· Your dog will "generalise" the behaviour and she’ll learn that it’s the cue word that’s important, not the fact that she’s in the kitchen or it’s just before dinner or the leash is on or you are wearing your red ‘training’ fleece.
There you have it.
Clicker training is not just a training tool to teach a new trick. It’s a way of life that builds a better, stronger, happier relationship between owner and their dog because it becomes woven into everyday life and it becomes an extremely powerful form of communication and teaching.