Clicker Training

The clicker tells a dog ‘good job’, specifically it means a treat is coming within three seconds. The clicker works because it is a consistent sound that acts as a bridge between the right action and when we fumble around and finally get the treat ready. Timing is crucial in training and the clicker helps us achieve that perfect timing. Studies show that dogs trained on a clicker learn information faster and retain the knowledge longer.

History of Clicker Training

In the 1890’s, Ivan Pavlov began studying the digestive system of dogs by externalizing the salivary gland so he could collect, measure and analyze the saliva and it’s response to food under various conditions. For his work, he won the Nobel Prize for physiology in 1904. Pavlov thought that saliva was a reflexive process brought about by stimulus and not under our conscious control. During his research, he noticed that dogs would salivate before being fed, before the food was even introduced.

This led him to believe that salivation was a learned response. The dogs identified his research assistants with the food that they brought.

Pavlov realized that the presentation of food brought about a salivary response (an unconditioned reflex) but the expectation of food also caused the dogs to salivate (a conditioned reflex).

Ever the scientist, Pavlov began experiments to test this theory. He exposed dogs to a ticking metronome and then immediately gave them food. After several trials he noted that the dogs would salivate upon hearing the metronome. The metronome became a conditioned stimulus that led to a conditioned response.

Though Pavlov was a physiologist, he is most famous today for his contributions to psychology and the wealth of information we have learned about classical conditioning.

In the 1940’s Burrhus Frederic Skinner began to study the science and technology of training. He invented an operant conditioning chamber (informally called a “Skinner Box”) to study animal behaviour. He placed a rat in a box rigged with a light, loudspeaker, response lever, food dispenser and electric grid. The operant conditioning chamber allowed researchers to study behaviour conditioning by teaching an animal an action in response to an external stimulus. In this case, a light or a sound would cue the rat to press a lever and out would pop a tasty treat. The rat quickly learned that pulling the lever produced desirable results. (In some cases, punishment would be dealt the animals who performed incorrectly.)

In some experiments, the reward would come randomly when the lever was pressed, and sometimes would not be delivered at all. The result was that the animal would continue to pull the lever in hopes of getting the tasty treat. (This is often compared to gamblers who put money in slot machines hoping that ‘this will be the time’ they get the reward.) Decreased (but not extinct) reward leads to stronger reinforcement of a behaviour.

Modern clicker training was born in Marine parks in the 1960’s, but it has its roots in the operant conditioning of Skinner from the 1940’s. Keller Breland, Marian Breland Bailey and Bob Bailey were the first to set the trend on clicker training. Using the clicker and operant conditioning, these researchers were able to train wild pigeons, whales, bears, lions, chickens, dogs and cats. And I am told that people have even been successfully trained using a clicker, though all evidence is anecdotal thus far.

Drawbacks of the clicker

Nothing is perfect, there are about two drawbacks to using the clicker. The first problem is people. Some people have a hard time getting the rhythm of the clicker. With practice it will become second nature, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t get it right away. You will, and it will make training easier for you and your dog.
The second problem is fear. Some timid dogs are afraid of the clicker. It is worth getting your dog over that fear however, as the benefits of clicker training far outweigh a little initial nervousness. If your dog is afraid of the clicker, try hiding it behind your back or muffling it in your pocket. As soon as he realizes that the click means a treat is coming, he will start to warm up to it.

Should your dog remain fearful, discontinue use of the clicker. Replace the click with another marker; a whistle, a light, or some other precursor to the treat. Refrain from using a word as a marker, research shows that a clicker is faster, more efficient and more effective than a verbal marker.

How to clicker train

To teach your dog that click=treat, take a handful of treats and click and treat until you run out. It only takes a few tries for your dog to get the hang of the clicker. Once he knows it, use it when he performs a right action. For example, if you cue “come” and he comes, then you want to immediately click and treat. Dogs anticipate the reward and that anticipation (along with the actual treat itself) becomes part of the reward.