Thursday, January 2, 2014

Clicker Training Basics

Since January is National Train Your Dog Month- you probably didn't know that and I won't hold it against you; I really only expect total canine dorks like myself to know such things- I thought it would be a great time to talk about something that I use in training frequently.
Yup, these things.

You push down that little yellow thingie and it makes a distinct clicking noise. There are different kinds of clickers, this is an i-click type that was developed by Karen Pyror. She's a pretty smart lady when it comes to training and behavior. There are also ones called box clickers that have a metal tab you push down to get the same noise. The advantages of the i-clicks are that the noise is a little softer, so it is less intimidating to nervous dogs and if you drop it (happens to the best of us) you can still press the tab down with your foot! I order them by the case with my logo on them for clients, but they are available for purchase at most pet stores and of course, on Amazon.

First a general disclaimer: 
-I don't always use clickers in training:
     In multiple dog households, I stray away from them- unless they have a really big house and can train one dog at a time in a separate part of the house. You'll understand why this is important in a few minutes.
     Some owners are so overwhelmed by the thought of having to use another tool (leash, collar, treats/toys, dog) that I just don't add to their stress level.
     Some dogs are so freaked out by the noise that it would take more time to desensitize to the clicker and that would delay getting to the real issue.
     Some owners are opposed to the idea of a clicker, and as long as I am getting them to communicate clearly with their dog using reward based training at all, I'm happy with it.

In general, the last thing I want to do is be so stuck on ONE tool that I lose clients. I want to work with people to find a solution that helps them and their dog- if that means no clicker, it's no problem. If however, that means they want to beat their dog and use a choke chain we will have major differences in opinion!

Ok, now on to the clicker! There are some rules on what a clicker is and is not. The 'is not' list is shorter so I'll start with that in case you get bored and stop reading soon.

A clicker is NOT:
-A toy for your child to run around with, clicking all the livelong day. Unless you want to run around giving your dog a treat every time they hear the click so that you can still use it in training.
-A device for getting your dog's attention. I have taken clickers away from clients who tried this, so don't get me started!
-Something to scare or startle your dog. I don't use techniques like spray bottles and shake cans to change behavior. Things like that don't usually work long term anyway- eventually you'll put that penny can down and your dog will notice.
-A chew toy. This should be common sense, but I have known dogs who eat things like rocks and newspapers...and clickers. Do yourself, your dog and your veterinarian a favor and keep small plastic objects out of reach, please.

How does a clicker work in training?
There are two types of conditioning used with clicker training- Classical Conditioning  and Operant Conditioning. I'll get into Operant vs Classical Conditioning later on when I figure out how to add charts and pictures so it's easier to understand. For now, as a very general rule, lets just say operant conditioning works on the principles that any behavior that is rewarded will be repeated and ones that are ignored or punished will not, and animals learn to interact with their environment based on these outcomes. In classical conditioning, the animal is simply learning an association between objects/events. Again, very, very simplified so this post isn't 5 pages long.
-Initially, the clicker is paired with treats so that your dog understands that it means good things will happen. This is classical conditioning at work: your dog already likes treats, making them an unconditioned reinforcer, their love of treats and excitement for them is an unconditioned response- they do it naturally.
-You pair the treats with something new like a clicker (neutral stimulus) and after a little time (usually 20-100 clicks for initial pairing), the previously neutral stimulus elicits the same response as the unconditioned stimulus. That is, after pairing, the clicker gets the dog excited for treats and fun (without seeing any treats).
-Clicker pairing is simply clicking and giving a reward to get them to understand that the -click- sound means treats! In training, we sometimes call this charging the clicker.
-Once the clicker is paired, you are able to communicate with your dog that they are right at the exact time they offer the behavior you want. If your dog knows she did the right thing and it made you happy and she gets a treat, she's going to do it again. Now that your clicker is paired, operant conditioning will take over. You will use the clicker to reinforce and reward all the good behaviors your dog offers. Remember, any behavior that is rewarded will be repeated by your dog.
A clicker IS:
-A tried and tested training method- it was first used with marine mammals to communicate without force; it has been used on different species in zoos and rescue facilities.
-A reward marker; meaning that it marks the moment in time when your dog offers the correct behavior. When your dog's bum is on the ground for the sit cue, you click AS SOON AS HER BUM HITS THE GROUND! This teaches her that when her bum hits the ground after you say that "sit" word, she gets a treat. Guess what? She's going to try sitting more often!
-A clear, concise method of communicating with your dog- it always sounds the same, no matter who is holding it or what kind of day they had. Yes, you say "good girl" differently when you've had a crappy day and your dog knows it. I mean it's still good to talk to your dog and I encourage you to do so, but for training, a clicker is great. Oh, and a clicker is way faster than you actually getting the words "good girl' out of your mouth. If you're anything like me, the fewer words you need to try getting from brain to mouth in the correct order, the better off you are.
-Great for working at a distance, so you don't have to yell!
-Something that is faded out after initial training of a new behavior. This is done with random rewards, rewarding only best responses and switching to 'real life rewards' like toys, praise and games.
-Something that needs to be rewarded EVERY TIME your dog hears it, if you want it to work in training. This is why it's not a child's toy.
-Something that, if paired correctly, is a very powerful training tool. This is why I don't recommend it to multiple dog households- if you are working with Fluffy on 'sit' while Fido (who already practiced sit and is now a little jealous) is eating the toilet paper on the other side of the room, you are rewarding two behaviors, but only one of those is a desirable behavior.

Ok, that's it from this end until next week- I want you to go out and train your dog, ok? Remember, playing games is still training, so have fun!

For more info on Train Your Dog Month, hop on over here- it's all been planned by the APDT.
It's really a great excuse to go out and buy more treats, fetch and tug toys for your pooch if nothing else :)


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