I use clicker training with the majority of my clients, or at least with their dogs- people look at me funny when I start clicking and giving out M&M’s. I love clicker training, there’s no hiding it so I won’t even try. It fits perfectly in my force-free philosophy and makes training fun and fast for everyone. There are a few exceptions to this- homes with multiple small children can mean the parents have to be extra careful and put more work into hiding the fun little noisemaker and folks who have slower reaction time due to age, physical handicap, or disease. In those cases, we tend to use a verbal reward marker, like “YES!” Let me take a step back and explain all about the clicker. The clicker utilizes the principles of classical conditioning, which is based on the work of Ivan Pavlov. Like so many scientific discoveries, Pavlov stumbled upon Classical Conditioning (CC) by accident. The Russian physiologist was studying canine salivation rates in response to meals back in the 1890’s when he realized that the dogs began to salivate when he (the person feeding them) would enter the room. He put together that some things are innate for animals- drooling is something that a dog naturally does when food is around, so that response does not need to be trained. We call these responses Unconditioned Responses (UR) and they are generally paired with an Unconditioned Stimulus (US). US are things that trigger an innate response; food makes hungry dogs drool because their body begins producing saliva to aid in chewing and digestion- dogs don’t need to learn to do that. What Pavlov accidentally did was to pair the UR with something new, something without meaning- a Neutral Stimulus (NS). Next, the can opener that he used to open the canned dog food was paired with the food enough times that the dogs began to have the same response to the can opener as the actual food. He took this farther and tried pairing the salivation with another NS- a bell. He wound up with dogs who would drool at the sound of a bell ringing. That is exactly what we do with the clicker- it starts out as this noisemaker that means nothing, but quickly becomes an indication that the dog will get a treat for doing what we want- a reward marker. Do you know why clicker training became so popular with marine and other large mammals? Because it allowed people to train and work with them without punishment. There a few problems with using coercive techniques with animals who weigh tons more than people- the people can get hurt and if uninterested, the whale simply swims away or the elephant stomps on the human who keeps hurting him. Clicker training is used with dogs, horses, chickens, and a world of animals in zoos. It allows us to work with them safely and build a healthy, strong relationship with the animal and a tool to effectively communicate.
You have questions, I know. I have the answers:
Do I always need a clicker?
Of course not, you also don’t need a pouch full of jerky, either. These are only needed for initially training a behavior or cue. Once fluent in the words we teach, you will begin to fade out the use of treats and the clicker. We then use real life rewards- toys, free play, tug, belly rubs- whatever the dog loves.
My dog doesn’t need more food, he’s already overweight.
That's fine. You can use part of your dog’s daily food as rewards during training most of the time and if you need to use more tasty treats, you can simply cut back on their regular food. Also, you won’t always need treats, over time your dog will do what you ask for petting, praise, toys, tug, fetch- whatever he likes. Lastly, we use really, really small pieces of treat in training- my rule of thumb is that the treat should be no bigger than a pea.
Does this really work?
Yes. Do you go to the door when you hear the doorbell? Do you answer your phone when it rings? Those are both examples of things that were at one point in your life, neutral stimuli but were given a new meaning; that’s all we are doing with clicker training. If you need further proof of how it works in people, check out this article on TAGTeach, which is essentially clicker training used in people, especially for young athletes to perfect form and to help those with certain developmental challenges.