Click ‘N’ Train

Clicker seems like such a simple gadget and it is hard to believe that it can control animals as big as a whale or as small as a tropical fish. At zoos, marine parks, and now even at dog training schools; elephants, whales, baboons and our faithful dogs are learning new behaviours pleasantly, thanks to this little tool. Here’s how to use clicker to shape your canine’s behaviour.

How clicker works

In essence, a clicker is an abbreviated way of saying “good boy.” It identifies for the animal exactly which behaviour “caused” reinforcement. Behavioural psychologists, who first used this tool for shaping behaviour, call it a secondary reinforcer. Primary reinforcers are the actual things that animals work for?–?food, water, physical affection or fetching a ball. A secondary reinforcer is a signal that is associated with actual reinforcements until it takes on some of the qualities of those reinforcers. To understand this, merely pick up your dog’s leash and ask if anyone would like to go for a walk. The leash is not the actual “walk,” the primary reinforcer, but can act as a secondary reinforcer by triggering an almost identical reaction. The clicker can be associated with many actual reinforcers, such as food, affection and play. Once the clicker takes on these properties, it can be used in a number of ways.

  • The clicker accurately identifies correct behaviour. Because the clicker is faster than verbal praise, it is more precise. By the time it takes to say “good boy,” an animal may perform the desired behaviour and then move to an unwanted response, before the praise has time to register. In this scenario, the animal can’t tell if the trainers liked the “sit” or “jumping up on the trainer” that occurred a split second later.
  • The clicker can also work well from a distance. It is impractical to try and toss a treat at an animal’s mouth at the exact moment that a desirable behaviour occurs. The clicker bridges the gap from the instant the animal performs the correct response and the time it takes to actually deliver a treat.
  • The clicker can take the place of actual treats. Just as verbal praise has the ability to satisfy an animal in the absence of treats, the clicker can motivate an animal to work through “dry spells.”
  • The clicker can take your dog’s mind off the actual reinforcement.
  • The clicker helps to define the end of the behaviour. When teaching a dog to stay, for instance, the click indicates how long the animal must remain in one spot before reinforcement is possible.

Charging up your clicker

The first step in “powering up” your clicker is to associate it with positive reinforcers. If your dog already knows some obedience behaviours, merely replace your use of verbal praise with the clicker.

Example?:

  • Say “Sit.”
  • Tommy sits.
  • Click and treat. (The sequence of “click then treat” is important.) (Tip: If your dog does not yet know any formal behaviours, simply click the clicker and give the dog a treat. Do this about 20-30 times until the dog visibly startles at the sound of the click.)

Shaping behaviour

When offered a favourite snack, most dogs will sit expectantly and wait for the treat. After a few seconds of waiting, Tommy is likely to get impatient and fidget in some way. He may turn his head, backup, speak or lift a paw. Wait for the first thing he offers, click and treat. (For this first session, the behaviour you pick is not important.) If Tommy turned his head a little bit for the first click, wait a few seconds; he’ll do it again. Click and treat. Continue this process and watch how his behaviour changes. If you continue to click and treat each time he moves his head, the behaviour will become stronger. Now try waiting a second before you click. Try to get two “head turns” for the price of one treat. Once you have a clearly definable behaviour going (head turning), start saying, “Turn your head,” just before you think Tommy is going to do it. If the behaviour you shaped was lifting a paw, say “Shake hands” just before you think he is about to perform the behaviour.

Learning to use positive reinforcement to shape behaviours is a fun process. Your initial goal should be to simply watch how your dog’s behaviour changes, and see how the clicker helps you to identify correct responses.

NOTE: Treats should be small, bite sized and easy for the dog to swallow whole. Soft treats can be swallowed quickly and are preferable to hard and crunchy treats.

Next issue…Learn to chant commands and reinforce positive behaviour of your canines.

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