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Basic Clicker Training
A common trait that animals who make good pets possess are that they know explicitly what behaviors are acceptable. As a pet owner you have also taken on the role of a pet trainer; and by doing so, it is an important responsibility that you establish clear boundaries and expectations to help them navigate the world in a safe and appropriate way. Teaching them desired behaviors through positively reinforced clicker training will help set both you and them up for success by keeping your dog and those around them safe, reducing their stress and anxiety, teaching them proper social interactions, and providing them with mental and physical enrichment. Although your pet can learn new things at any stage of life, it is best to start training early. Puppies can start training as early as 8 weeks of age. In this blog, we will break down simple training steps to get you started, but first here’s a little background on where the concept of clicker training stems from Mr. Skinner:
Burrhus Frederic Skinner, (commonly known as B. F. Skinner), an American psychologist, discovered a new way to shape animal behavior by implementing a system of rewards as he conducted experiments with lab rats inside his famous “Skinner Box”. The rats learned that if they pushed a certain lever inside the box, they were rewarded with food, and the more they were rewarded, the more they went to push the lever. The basic premise is that when one performs the desired behavior and is rewarded positively for it, the probability that they will repeat that same behavior increases. He called this system of positive reinforcement training “Operant Conditioning” and I encourage you to read this article that breaks down the principles of this teaching method.
Clicker Training is a form of positive reinforcement training similar to what B. F. Skinner utilized with the lab rats and has since been adapted for use with both domestic pet owners and zookeepers alike. A clicker is a bridge tool that is used to communicate to your pet the precise moment they perform the desired behavior being targeted. For example: If you want your pet to “sit” with their rump on the ground for a reward, but they start to stand up as you give them their treat, the behavior you rewarded with the treat was when they lifted their rump up and started to stand rather than the moment they sat down. This can cause a disconnect between the desired behavior and the behavior actually being rewarded. By marking the exact moment with the bridge tool and then treat rewarding, you can more precisely communicate the moment of correct execution to your pet, thus eliminating any confusion that may have been created. Every click for a correctly executed task must be immediately followed up with a treat reward. Over time with repetition, the clicker becomes a conditioned reinforcer because the animal will directly associate the sound of the click with a treat reward. There is a multitude of options when it comes to clickers, so just choose the one that feels right to you. The one I prefer to use is the blue and orange ‘Starmark Pro-Training Clicker Dog Training Aid’, due to its ergonomic feel and less abrasive clicking sound. Below is a quick breakdown of clicker training steps.
Step 1: Incentivize –
Show your pet what they are working for. Most animals are highly motivated by food, but there are some who aren’t, so take time to determine what your pet will respond best to. Sometimes this is a trial and error process. Using a highly desired treat works best for this method of training, but you could also use ear rubs, a ball toss, etc if you have a non-food motivated pet.
Step 2: Establish the purpose of the clicker –
The sound of the clicker is meaningless to your pet at first, so you need to establish that any time they hear the sound, it means they get a treat. Stand with your pet in a neutral area devoid of stimuli and distractions and depress your clicker, then immediately give them a treat. Repeat this up to 20 times in a row or until your pet realizes that a click = a treat! *Please note that if you prefer not to use a clicker, you can apply the same methodology and use a word in place of the clicker such as “Yes!”
Step 3: Command/Cue –
Clearly give concise verbal and physical commands simultaneously for the desired behavior. For example, you could say, “sit” with your hand in a fist holding a treat above the animal’s head with their nose pointing up to the sky to get them to tilt their body into a sitting position with their rump fully resting on the ground. Remember to always stay consistent with every verbal and physical cue you give so as to not cause confusion. This part can require patience. Give your pet time to figure out what you are trying to get them to do.
Step 4: Reward (Clicker + Treat) –
As soon as your pet performs the desired task, in this case, “sit,” immediately reward with the clicker the moment their rump hits the ground, and then give your pet their treat/reward right after the click. The click sound will mark the desired behavior, and the treat will reward them for what they did correctly. Repeat your cues and reward each correctly performed task consistently and with strict criteria. Over time, once your pet has the behavior down, you can wait longer and longer to reward, and can eventually reward with treats on a variable schedule, then transition to just the clicker reward. The previously mentioned B.F. Skinner article touches on different reward schedules, should you be interested in implementing those as your pet masters their acquired skills.
Important tips and things to remember:
- The clicker is meaningless on its own. Its significance is learned through association with a treat reward, and thus, eventually, your pet learns that whenever they hear that sound (or word if you are not using a clicker), a treat reward is coming.
- Use a small soft chew treat that they can consume quickly. This will help keep sessions at a fast pace by eliminating the presence of dead time for their focus to wander.
- Strict expectations on desired behaviors and consistency in clicking and rewarding are essential to successful training sessions.
- Know your cues and corresponding gestures prior to starting training sessions, and be confident when implementing them.
- Training sessions should stay under 15mins and should be shorter for younger animals or those who are easily distracted or overly anxious. This prevents them from getting bored or anxious, which can cause them to make mistakes or act out.
- The American Kennel Club has a great article for teaching puppies 5 basic commands, and it includes video examples that are very helpful.
Animals who are clicker trained, quickly love to work for the clicks. It doesn’t take long for the training sessions to feel like a game they get to play. The bonus is since the whole process is based on positive reinforcement, it is enjoyable and rewarding for them to “work”. Clicker training with your pets creates a healthy way to teach them manners and helps you better communicate with them while doing so. It’s a great bonding experience that builds their confidence while also providing them with valuable mental and physical enrichment. Congratulations, you can now use your newfound training skills to impress your fellow dog owners at the park!
Credit: Robin Laclede