Clicker Training - A Brief Introduction
by Daniel Lim
A Brief History
Is Clicker Training, a new and modern method of training dogs, just a passing fad? I think not. Keller
and Marian Breland, who studied under psychologist, B.F. Skinner, have successfully trained dogs,
dolphins, chickens amongst many other animals using this same method as early as the 1940s.
Since then, trainers have more popularly trained the sea mammals in ocean parks using only their
whistle (instead of a clicker) and a pail of fish.
In the 1980s, Gary Wilkes, a behaviourist collaborated with dolphin trainer, Karen Pryor
to introduce this method of training to the dog world. Little metal crickets were used instead of
whistles and were called clickers because of the sound they made, thus the term "Clicker Training".
Today, as more trainers turn towards a more positive method of training and away from harsh
aversion based methods, Clicker Training is fast gaining in popularity.
Definition of Clicker Training
Clicker Training is based on B.F. Skinner's scientific learning theory of Operant Conditioning. According
to Karen Pryor, Clicker Training can be defined as the use of positive reinforcement (R+) and
negative punishment (P-) in the development and fluency of behaviors. It utilises the clicker as a tool to
communicate to the animal being trained. Note that the clicker used is a tool and not a magic
The Clicker As A Tool
The pressing of the clicker emits a sharp and clinical sound. Used by itself, it does not do much in terms
of communicating or training. However, when the click (Conditioned Reinforcer) has been paired with a
reward (Primary Reinforcer), it becomes a very useful tool. In essence, the clicker can now replace any
verbal cues (eg. "Good boy!") that mark the instance when the animal is doing something right.
One advantage over using a verbal indicator is that when correctly used, the clicker is extremely precise
in marking a point in time, whereas in the time it takes to say "Good boy!", the animal may have gone
through a few different behaviours and may inherently learn something quite different from what you
Another advantage is the clinical sound that it emits. The delivery is consistently the same each and
every time, unlike the voice which varies in tone, inflection, volume etc (depending on the way we feel).
It also cuts out all the unnecessary chatter that can be so confusing to the animal who does not
understand what we're on about.
The Training Process
Generally, the training process consists of the steps listed below.
- Charging up the clicker
- Getting the behaviour
- Adding the cue (command) word
- Extinguishing un-cued responses
- Weaning off the clicker
- Generalising the behaviour
I. Charging Up The Clicker
- The process of charging up the clicker is simply to get the animal to associate the click with the treat.
This is achieved by clicking and then treating the animal consistently for maybe 20-50 times until
they get visibly excited by the sound of the click.
II. Getting The Behaviour
- There are 4 ways to get the behaviour.
|Methods To Get The Behaviour
- Using a treat or toy in front of your dog's nose, you can guide it into the desired position and
then click and treat (C/T).
- C/T when we find the dog exhibiting the final desired behaviour. For example, in teaching
the down command to a dog, every time you see the dog in the down position, you C/T the dog.
- A behaviour is shaped by breaking it down to very small achievable responses that will
eventually lead to the final desired behaviour. An example would be in teaching a dog to spin
in a clockwise circle. We start off by clicking for the slightest head movement to the right. Once
the dog is offering the slight head turn consistently for the click, we raise the criteria and expect
a further head turn before we click. The criteria is raised very slowly according to the fluency at
each phase until a full spin of the body is achieved. This is arguably the best way to capture the
behaviour as the dog will play a very active role in learning the behaviour and this makes
understanding what is required all the better.
- Very seldom used by clicker trainers. It involves physically manipulating the dog
into the desired position and then clicking for it. It is the least desirable way to teach a
behaviour since the animal is not actively trying to learn what is being taught.
III. Adding The Cue (Command)
- The cue is only added once the animal has learned the desired behaviour. To add the cue, the trainer
will only need to say the cue just before the animal predictably performs the behaviour. This is done
over a number of repetitions until the animal successfully associates the cue to the behaviour and
promptly does it on cue.
Adding the cue after teaching the behaviour is something conventional trainers will initially have
some problems with. Conventional trainers are used to repeating the cue over and over again as
they try to teach the behaviour. Clicker trainers believe that it is not only unnecessary, but also
inhibits progress. It would be easier for the animal to concentrate only on learning the behaviour
and upon mastering that, to associate the cue with the behaviour. The advantages are that the animal
can concentrate on one thing at a time and also we would ultimately like the cue to be paired with
the final desired behaviour instead of the sub-standard version learned early in the process.
IV. Extinguishing Un-cued Responses
- The animal at this point will still keep offering this new learned behaviour even when the trainer
does not cue it. Therefore it is necessary now to stop reinforcing (ie. C/T) the behaviour unless the
cue is given.
V. Weaning Off The Clicker
- So far, training has been on a continuous rate of reinforcement, that is one response to one C/T. To
wean off the clicker, start to vary the number of correct responses before a C/T. This will keep the
animal guessing and hoping that each time they perform the behaviour, they will be rewarded with
VI. Generalising The Behaviour
- Dogs are terrible at generalising behaviours. Having taught them to sit in front of you does not mean
that they will understand how to sit beside you. Having taught them a trick in your room, does not
mean they will know how to perform it in your garden. Thus the new behaviour learned must be
practised or even re-taught in as many new environments as possible. This will eventually result
in a behaviour which is reliable, since the learning process has been built on a solid foundation.
Advantages Of Clicker Training
The advantages of Clicker Training when compared to other conventional methods are many. I have
listed some of the advantages below. As a crossover trainer, the thing that impressed me most is that
both my dogs and I are finally having fun at training sessions. I have also realised just how
intelligent they are when they start getting creative and problem solving on their own. Our
enthusiasm has returned and training is now all fun and games, which is what I believe should be.
|Advantages of Clicker Training
- A positive, gentle and motivational method
- Builds a strong bond between the handler and the dog
- Improves communication between the handler and the dog
- Invoke dog's creativity
- Trains a thinking dog
- Improved attitude towards training
- Able to teach complex exercises easily
- Stress free dogs
- Very forgiving method
- Fun! Fun! Fun!
- Focuses on what is right rather than what is wrong
- No more infliction of physical pain
- Even young puppies can start training
- Removes the by-products of aversive training
- A Proven scientific method that works
This is only a very basic introduction to what Clicker Training is all about. More books and videos are
now available for further research. I believe that this is the way into the future of canine training.
The best way to find out what all this is about is to pick up a clicker and give it a try. Your dog will love you for it!
CLICK and TREAT!
Copyright Daniel Lim, November 1999.
- Operant Conditioning
- A cause and effect relationship between environmental factors and behaviours.
Behavioural response to environmental cues are governed by its consequences.
An animal will tend to repeat behaviours which lead to rewarding consequences
and behaviours that are not rewarding will eventually be extinguished.
- Primary Reinforcers
- are things that the animal instinctively finds rewarding. Examples are food,
water, games, affection etc.
- Conditioned Reinforcer
- is a learned reward. Something which when paired with a
Primary Reinforcer long enough will eventually be just as rewarding.
- Positive Reinforcement (R+)
- - Anything that is given to the animal immediately after a
behaviour which tends to increase the probability of the behaviour being repeated.
- Negative Reinforcement (R-)
- - Anything that is taken away from the animal immediately after
a behaviour which tends to increase the probability of the behaviour being repeated.
- Positive Punishment (P+)
- - Anything that is given to the animal immediately after a behaviour
which tends to decrease the probability of the behaviour being repeated.
- Negative Punishment (P-)
- - Anything that is taken away from the animal immediately after a
behaviour which tends to decrease the probability of the behaviour being repeated.
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Links To Clicker Sites
- Karen Pryor's web site - If you're looking for the books Karen Pryor
has written, videos or equipment to get you started, check out her web site which also includes some really good reading and
a list of achievements by Clicker trained dogs.
- Gary Wilke's web site - Find out about Gary Wilkes, read his excellent
articles and you can also buy his videos and Clicker equipment there.
- Clicker Solutions web site - Lots of very good information there and you
can also subscribe to the mailing list.
as of 25 Nov 1999