It all started over 70 years ago, when Marian Bailey and Keller Breland, two graduate students of famous behaviorist B.F Skinner, started studying methods to train pigeons for the Navy during World War II. They soon discovered that the methods used back then were not very successful for the simple fact that they failed to provide animals with much needed precision. Keller Breland was the first to employ a clicker so to “bridge the time between the behavior and the delivery of the reinforcer,” as he explains in his own words.
Later, the same training methodology was used in the 1950’s to train large marine mammals. Although back in those days a whistle was used to train marine mammals, the principles were the same as those applied in clicker training. This training philosophy was further spread by Karen Pryor, owner of Sea Life Park with whom the Breland worked for some time. In 1984, Karen Pryor’s book “Don’t Shoot the Dog” skyrocketed in popularity grabbing the attention of many dog trainers drawn to the world of positive reinforcement and clicker training.
Understanding Clicker Training
The term “clicker training” derives from the noise produced by this small mechanical noisemaker upon being compressed. The clicking noise is used to mark behaviors that are then followed by reinforcement. Dogs who haven’t experienced clicker training, don’t understand what the clicking noise means at first, but they soon learn to associate the clicking sound with a reward. When the clicker starts assuming a meaning to the dog it is known to have become a conditioned reinforcer, secondary reinforcer, or as Breland called it, “a bridge.”
Why use a clicker? Many dog owners wonder why they must use a clicker when they can use words to bridge a behavior with a reward.
Better Precision and Reliability
Increase Your Dog’s Confidence
Replaceable by Verbal Marker
While it’s true that the words “Good boy” or an enthusiastic “Yes!” can be also used to mark desired behaviors and to bridge behaviors with rewards, the clicker offers much more precision and a neutral tone that is more reliable and quicker than the human voice. The clicker’s meaning ultimately remains always the same to a dog’s ears: it communicates a reward is on its ways courtesy of a performed behavior.
Because a clicker is based on positive reinforcement, dogs often respond to clicker training with enthusiasm and high motivation. Clicker-savvy dogs are often so eager to play the “clicker game”, they’ll spontaneously start offering behaviors the moment they acknowledge the clicker. Their eyes will brighten, their tails will wag and their body will be ready to spring into motion.
Clicker training can also be beneficial for dogs who need a boost in their confidence levels. Because clicker training teaches dogs to interact with their environment, timid dogs that are withdrawn will often open up and become bolder.
Best of all, dog owners concerned about having to carry a clicker with them all the time can rest assured that they won’t have to. Indeed, clickers are mostly use in the initial stages of learning, and can be replaced by a verbal marker once the behavior has been learned, explains dog trainer Casey LoMonaco.
Guide to Clicker Training
The very first step in clicker training consists of “loading” or “charging” the clicker. This is the step where dogs learn what the clicking sound means. It’s best to start in a room with little distractions using small, soft treats as rewards. The trainer should click the clicker and immediately give a treat and repeat the click/treat process several times in a row until the dog gives signs of making the association between click and treat. Generally, a dog that turns his head and looks for treats after hearing the clicking sound has started to make the association.
Once the association has been made, the dog can be clicked and rewarded for engaging in desired behaviors. Timing is very important. The click must happen right when the behavior occurs, not a second prior, not a second after. As the saying goes “you get what you click for.” Once dog and dog owners get acquainted with the clicker, the sky is ultimately the limit to teaching new behaviors.
The Bottom Line
Despite what people assume, clicker training is not a new “fad.” As seen, this training philosophy has been in practice for many decades with great success. For many good reasons, clicker training is the method of choice for many trainers looking for precision, motivation and enthusiastic responses. It’s not a coincidence after all, that many species, from dolphins and birds to exotic animals have been successfully trained courtesy of this amazing philosophy.