Clicker training is an extremely effective training method based on the well-researched science of behaviorism. The laws of behaviorism tell us how all organisms, from humans to cockroaches, learn from their environments, just as the laws of physics define and govern the way physical objects move and interact with each other. By using clicker training, we can use those laws of learning to effectively and kindly teach our pets how to do all sorts of things, from walking nicely on a leash to balancing a ball on their noses.
In clicker training, trainers use a small noisemaker called a clicker to mark the exact instant when their pet is doing something they want it to repeat in the future. Think of the click like a camera shutter: you’re taking a picture of the behavior you want to reward. The click is then followed by something the pet really likes: a treat, a game of tug-of-war, a tossed toy, getting to go outside for a walk, etc. The pet quickly learns that the click means “You did it right, so I’m going to give you a reward!” and tries to repeat that behavior in the hopes of earning more rewards. Voila! Your pet has become an engaged learner who thinks of training as a fun game that his human plays with him.
The clicker is used to teach new behaviors, since it helps your dog understand exactly what you’re rewarding him for. Once your dog understands what behavior you want him to do, you can “fade out” use of the clicker (and eventually fade out the treats as well) until your dog is performing his learned behaviors without any clicker or treats.
By gradually changing the criteria for what behavior earns a click, you can teach your pet to do even very complicated behaviors. For instance, if I wanted to teach my dog to take a bow, I might first click him for pointing his nose toward the ground, then for dipping his head toward the ground, then for bending his elbows slightly (as he moves his head even closer to the ground), then for bending his elbows even more, and finally for putting his elbows all the way on the ground while his hind end is still up in the air. By changing the criteria gradually and only when the learner has mastered the previous step, a trainer can teach behaviors without frustrating or confusing her pet.
Another reason that clicker training is so effective and enjoyable for both the trainer and the learner is because the clicker allows trainers to communicate very clearly to their pets: “What you are doing at this instant is what I am rewarding you for!” Because of this clear communication, clicker-trained pets are less confused and frustrated during training. Can you remember what it was like to be in school and hope the teacher wouldn’t call on you because you didn’t know the answer? Pets can feel that way during training too! But with the clicker, we can let the pets know exactly what we like so that they can choose to do it again.
Finally, clicker training is highly effective because clicker trainers do not use punishment. Because of this, our pets don’t need to fear that something they do will result in something unpleasant or scary, so they are free to be creative during training sessions. This leads to faster learning, which benefits everybody! Because clicker trainers don’t use punishment, but instead reward behaviors they like, clicker-trained pets learn amazingly quickly and develop strong, deep bonds with the humans who train them.
But if you don’t use punishment, what should you do when Fluffy chews your shoes? A clicker trainer would interrupt the unwanted behavior by trading Fluffy something even more desirable to get your shoe back, then redirect Fluffy to chew on a sanctioned chew item, like a bone or Kong toy. Once she’s happily chewing, you should pick up your shoes and put them in the closet so that Fluffy can’t continue to practice the unwanted behavior and form a habit. From the pet’s point of view, it can be hard to tell a pet toy from a piece of clothing! Make it easy on Fluffy by eliminating the temptation until she’s learned to choose the right things to chew. A qualified positive trainer can then help you come up with a training plan to teach Fluffy to make good choices about what items to chew on.
(Written by Caroline Moore)