About Clicker Training
You’ve seen dolphins and killer whales leaping from a pool of water,
jumping through a hoop, or balancing a wetsuit-clad trainer on the tip of at
the partnership between wild animal and human trainer! The scene is
almost magical, and witnessing it in person does not take away from the
otherworldliness of what your eyes behold. Surely this is some sort of
wizardry at work.

The truth is that the “magic” that occurs in marine park pools all across the
world is actually the result of a very scientific form of animal training:
operant conditioning with the use of a secondary reinforcer. The user-
friendly term for this sort of training is “clicker training”. And this “magic” is
available for easy use to anyone with an animal they’d like to train.

Because you cannot physically force a dolphin or a huge killer whale in a
tank of deep water to do anything it does not want to do, trainers need
brains instead of brawn to teach their charges those fancy show
behaviors.  Using POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT – food rewards for doing the
right thing – dolphin trainers get these mammals to behave through a
process called “shaping”. Shaping allows trainers to break down complex
behaviors into tiny parts and reward the dolphin after each successful
step. Each step builds upon the last, and before you know it, the whole
behavior is performed in one step, and then rewarded.  But there is an
added element that makes this kind of training so useful and effective: the
conditioned reinforcer. This is a sound that is given special meaning – it can
be a word, a whistle, or the click of a clicker!

Through a process called classical conditioning (think Pavlov’s dogs and
that bell that made them drool), the “click” of the little plastic clicker box
paired with food becomes a signal that the food is on the way.  When the
animal hears the click, it knows it did the right thing and food is on the
way. The clicker therefore is a conditioned reinforcer – something that was
originally neutral to the animal and now has positive meaning.
You may be thinking, “Why not just use food? Why add the element of the
click?”  The click is quick and precise, and “marks” the exact behavior the
trainer wants to see, the exact second it happens. This makes things
unequivocally clear to the animal. And that makes training easier and
faster than training with food alone.

But there’s more!

In animal training, it is imperative that the food be delivered to the animal
during or immediately proceeding the behavior – otherwise the animal
might get confused about what it’s being rewarded for.  When you are
teaching complex behaviors that are shaped step by step, sometimes
broken down into very tiny increments, it can be really difficult relaying to
your animal what it is being rewarded for. You might want to reward for a
tiny flipper movement, or a wink, or a blow hole opening. By the time you
deliver the food to the animal in a pool, ten more behaviors could have
occurred. Which behavior is the animal being rewarded for?  The clicker
acts as a BRIDGE between behavior and reward – when the animal hears
the click the second the behavior happens, it knows in no uncertain terms
what it did right.  

Lastly, the clicker lets the animal know it did a good job and completed the

To review, the clicker allows trainers to MARK the correct behavior the
moment it happens, it BRIDGES (connects) behavior to food so the animal
knows what it is getting rewarded for, and it ENDS the behavior so the
animal knows it did its job.  WOW! All that from just one click!

But why the CLICK? Why not just use your voice?   The clicker never
wavers, always sounds the same, and always has the same meaning. Your
voice can sound different morning and night, is used for a variety of
reasons throughout the day, and the pitch can change. The clarity of the
clicker is something that makes it an exceptional training tool. Animals
need clarity and consistency to help them learn. There is also new research
coming out (
http://www.clickertraining.com/~c11cker/node/226) that
shows the click may have a very specific effect on the amygdala – that part
of the brain that impacts rapid learning. So there are several very good
reasons to use the clicker.

Today, more and more dog trainers are learning from dolphin and exotic
animal trainers and utilizing the clicker to train pet and competition dogs.
The efficacy and scientific validity of the clicker cannot be denied. Clicker
training is far superior to many other methods used by trainers that do not
understand operant conditioning or the science behind it. And whereas
some popular dog training methods can work only on animals you can
physically push around and dominate (like dogs), clicker training works
across species – because it uses brains not brawn to teach animals. And it
is, very importantly, a pain-free, humane way to train.

The application of the clicker in dog and other domestic animal training is
limitless. From obedience and agility, to solving complex behavior issues
http://www.clickertraining.com/node/64), and even to teaching a
miniature horse how to guide her blind owner (
org/coop_panda.htm), clicker training is changing lives. With clicker and
treats in hand, animal guardians across the world are embarking on new
and exciting training programs with their best friends. “Just click & treat” is
the motto (thankfully) replacing the old and dusty, “Just jerk the leash”.  

What are some applications of clicker training in the pet dog home? Use
clicker training to

•        teach a dog not to jump:  approach your dog, and when his four feet
are on the floor, click & treat!  
•        crate train: break down into increments the behavior of gladly
walking into a crate (look at crate, step towards crate, step in crate, get
fully into crate); click & treat each of those increments, gradually building
up to the full behavior before you click/treat. You’ll have a dog happy to go
in the crate on his own in no time!
•        go potty outdoors: click & treat when your dog uses the designated
outside potty spot!
•        teach eye contact: click & treat when your dog looks at you, either
on his own or when you say his name. Soon, you’ll have your dog’s
attention on demand.
•        teach manners on the leash. Click & treat for a loose leash, when
your dog is at your side, or when your dog looks at you!

The list of teachable behaviors can go on for as long as your imagination
will allow.

If you’re itchin’ to give clicker training a try, but don’t know where to start,
it’s easy. The only tools you need are a clicker, a pile of tasty treats, and of
course your dog. There are many clicker resources online, but my favorite
site is
www.clickertraining.com, which is the one-stop resource for all
things clicker training. There is plenty of information on this site to get you
started, from clicker theory to training how-to’s. And if you’re stumped on
how to teach a specific behavior, or are having difficulty with solving a
behavior problem, contact Peaceable Canines for help in choosing the right
training solution for you and your dog!

Clicker training is an exciting, simple, fun and effective way to train your
dog; with science on your side, how can you lose?     And if clicker training
can get a wild, 8 ton killer whale to gently kiss a trainer on the face, what
can it do for your pet dog?  
Teach your dog to move a paper cup with his nose:

A clicker training exercise.

1) "Charge" the clicker by clicking then treating in succession. Do
this for a few days, over the course of each day, for several minutes
each time (a good time to charge your clicker is while you are sitting
watching tv. Randomly click and toss your dog a treat.) Test the power
of the clicker by randomly clicking when your dog isn't paying
attention to you. If your dog swings around to look at you, the
clicker is ready to be put to work!

2) Take an unused paper or plastic cup. In a small, quiet room, show
it to your dog. Let him sniff it, and watch you place it on the floor.
Hold your clicker, and have some yummy treats in a bowl off to the
side where your dog cannot reach them.

3) Walk around the room without saying anything. Ignore your dog's
attempts to sucker treats out of you without earning them. Watch your
dog carefully. If he looks at or moves towards the cup on the floor,
click & treat. Each time your dog moves towards or looks at the cup,
click & treat.

4) Now, wait for your dog to get closer to the cup than he's ever
gotten before. Click & treat each time he gets closer and don't click
anything else.

5) Watch for your dog's nose to get near or touch the cup, when it
does, click & treat. Don't click anything else

6) Now wait until your dog hits the cup with his nose with enthusiasm
(he may even knock the cup over). Good, click & treat!  Pick the cup
up, place it upright on the floor, and try again. Click & treat each
time he touches the cup with his nose enthusiasm, and only then.

The purpose of this exercise is to demonstrate the power of the
clicker, and specifically how the process of shaping works (breaking
the behavior down into steps). You'll see that this whole process
takes a very short period of time. Watch for the gleam in your dog's
eye when he figures out what it is you want from him!