Animal training is one of those often-overlooked industries in today’s hustling and bustling technocentric society, yet, at the same time, very few professions are as rewarding or as fascinating. We explore the art and science of clicker training, one of the field’s most game-changing developments. Join us and find out how it is used to improve our relationship with man’s best friend.
There are three steps to clicker training a dog. The first step involves creating a link between the clicker sound and a treat in the dog’s mind. The second step involves linking a desired behaviour with the click. The final step is to establish a link between a triggering command and the desired behaviour. Eventually, the clicker and the treats can be faded out, leaving only the command-triggered behaviour.
Clicker training has been around since the 1940s when Keller and Marian Breland looked into and applied behaviourist B.F. Skinner’s principles of operant conditioning. They founded an animal training company named Animal Behaviour Enterprises (ABE), which based its approach to training on Skinner’s principles of positive reinforcement.
What is a clicker?
To fully understand what the term “clicker” means in an animal training context, we need a proper understanding of B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning principles, as well as how they were applied, refined and commercialized.
Readers who have studied psychology understand that operant conditioning is a massive topic that cannot be fully explained in this brief article. However, in the tiniest of all nutshells, operant conditioning is a learning theory that uses reinforcement or punishment to adjust a subject’s behaviour. In other words, it involves the use of consequences that either encourage desired behaviour or discourage unwanted behaviour. Skinner also stated that both reinforcements and punishments could be either “positive” or “negative”. Kindly note the table below.
|POSITIVE||Add pleasant consequence (e.g., a treat).||Add unpleasant consequences (e.g. yelling).|
|NEGATIVE||Remove unpleasant consequences (e.g. a muzzle)||Remove pleasant consequences (e. g., taking away a favourite toy).|
Skinner’s tenure at the University of Minnesota sparked bonfires in his student’s imaginations. Two graduate students, in particular, saw a commercial upside and relentlessly researched the applicability of his work. Married couple Marian “Mouse” Breland Bailey and her first husband Keller Bramwell Breland worked closely with Skinner, including a few of his military research and development projects. The trio famously collaborated on training U.S. Navy homing pigeons to guide bombs in hostile conditions.
After a while in grad school, the couple grew confident in the viability of a new and modern animal training facility that emphasised the positive reinforcement principle in particular. Despite Skinner’s constant discouragement, the idea had taken root, and there was no going back. Marian and Keller dropped out and abandoned their doctoral pursuits. The duo managed to secure loans to acquire a decent-sized farm in Minnesota and get the ball rolling. A former grad school classmate, Paul Meehl, wagered against their chances of success, abet the Brelands gracefully accepted, and ABE was born.
Work immediately proved that positive reinforcement was a more effective and more humane behaviour modification technique than the usual industry go-to of punishment. It was soon theorized that the use of a secondary reinforcer could enable more precise and instant responses. For example, one could use such a reinforcer to issue a “stand down” command to a dog just before it leaps onto a formally dressed guest. The basic principle was that pairing a primary reinforcer, like a dog treat, and a secondary reinforcer, like a whistle or click, to reward good behaviour would eventually lead to associations in the subjects’ brains. In other words, over time, the sound of the click or whistle would trigger anticipation for a treat, and the animal would then associate good behaviour as the only way to get a treat. Before these secondary reinforcers were known colloquially as “Clickers”, Mouse and Keller labelled them as “bridging stimuli”. This is because they bridged the dog’s anticipation gap, the time between the desired action and the release of the reward.
The 1940s, 50s, and 60s proved to be too soon for this idea, as bridging stimulus training failed to catch on as anticipated. Many animal trainers criticised and undermined the Brelands’ approach, with traditional animal training methods still at the forefront in the industry.
It was not until the late 80s and early 90s that business truly took off for ABE and clicker training as a whole. The early 90s saw trainers such as Gary Wilkes and Karen Pryor rise to prominence with their easily digestible seminars on clicker training for dogs.
The physical “clicker” itself is often a small cricket noisemaker. These can be either mechanical or electronic. It is important to note that a device is just a tool for precisely marking out desired behaviour and that sounds like whistles, pops, and words can also serve as “clickers”.
How to clicker train a dog
Clicker training depends on precision timing and repetition for the dog to build associations between the command, the clicker and the desired behaviour. Dogs have questionable attention spans, and, as a result, the trainer must be quick with the clicker to ensure that the right behaviour is reinforced. Failure to be precise with clicker markers can confuse dogs, especially young puppies.
Decades of research and practice by independent trainers and big enterprises like ABE have led us to three simple steps for ensuring Fido stays off the Thanksgiving table this year. Clicker training, as mentioned above, is primarily focused on the positive reinforcement principle of operant conditioning. This means the dog is rewarded for good behaviour rather than punished for undesirable behaviour.
Step 1: Establish an association between the clicker and a treat
Step one of clicker training a dog involves creating a link between the clicker sound and a treat in the dog’s mind. This is done by giving the animal a treat as soon as the clicker sounds.
Step 2: Establish an association between desired behaviour and the clicker.
The second step involves linking a desired behaviour with the click. Every time the dog exhibits the desired behaviour pattern, the trainer clicks the clicker. The occurrence of these behaviours also determines the approach used in this step. Behaviours that naturally occur spontaneously, such as laying down, require the trainer to catch the dog in the act before clicking the clicker and offering a treat. This process is called “capturing”. It is one of three approaches used when linking the click to behaviour.
The second approach to step two is known as “shaping”. This technique is common for puppies, and it involves teaching a behaviour by working up to it in incremental stages. Reinforcement baby steps, basically. Little rewards are given upon completion of each stage. Once the behaviour is completed in full, the clicker is sounded, and a more significant reward is given. This approach tends to demand a bit more patience and repetition than the other two.
The third approach is known as “luring”, where a piece of food is used to attract the dog to a certain position. This approach is highly effective for the “come” command used to summon the dog.
Step 3: Associate a command with the desired behaviour.
Once the dog has learned that desired behaviour leads to a tasty treat, the trainer must commence the process of establishing a command that will serve as a trigger. A command or gesture is added to the approaches detailed in step 2, and this drill is repeated until the command or gesture triggers the desired behaviour. The dog hears the command and associates it with behaviour that leads to a reward, reinforcing the training further. Once the dog masters the entire process, the trainer can begin slowly removing the clicker and the treats to leave the command and its associated desired behaviour eventually.
Why use it?
Clicker training is an effective method for a wide variety of creatures, including very young children, and research on the subject is still being carried out today.
Perhaps the main reason it is used is its precision. Clicking the clicker enables the trainer to mark the specific moment the desired behaviour is carried out. Because the dog already understands that the clicking sound precedes a reward, the timing of the click will, over time, indicate the precise behaviour being rewarded. Dogs often make many movements, making it difficult for other training methods to pick out one particular behaviour.
Clicker training is also favoured because many owners and trainers regard it as a more humane approach than those which feature punishment. The thought of yelling at or even beating an animal is just too much to bear for many animal lovers. Some people also argue that positive reinforcement is less likely to cause collateral trauma to animals than punishment-based training.
An interesting study at the University of Trieste in Italy revealed fascinating results when clicker training, voice command training and basic treat training were pitted against each other. 51 untrained pet dogs split into three groups. 17 dogs received clicker training, another 17 received voice command training, and the remaining 17 received basic treat training. Basic tricks and behaviours, such as putting a paw on a box, were taught and reinforced with the relevant training method. The results, though far from conclusive, showed that, in terms of how quickly a behaviour is learned, there was little difference in effectiveness between the three training approaches.
Chiandetti, C., Avella, S., Fongaro, E., & Cerri, F. (2016). Can clicker training facilitate conditioning in dogs? Applied Animal Behaviour Science DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2016.08.006.
Gibeault, S. (2019). Mark & Reward: Using clicker training to communicate with your dog. American Kennel Club. Retrieved on 23/10/2020 from https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/clicker-training-your-dog-mark-and-reward/#:~:text=Clicker%20training%2C%20or%20mark%20and,be%20followed%20by%20a%20reward.
Skinner, B.F. (1951). How to teach animals. Scientific American, 185, 26-29.
Todd, Z. (2016). Clicker Training vs Treat: Equally Good in Dog Training. Companion Animal Psychology. Retrieved on 23/10/2020 from https://www.companionanimalpsychology.com/2016/09/clicker-training-vs-treat-equally-good.html#:~:text=Scientists%20find%20unanticipated%20results%20in,food%20alone%20in%20dog%20training.