Have you heard about clicker training or still wondering what it is all about? Well, let’s start here with the basics of what ‘clicker’ is.
Clicker training is achieving the desired behaviour by rewarding it using a ‘clicker’ – named so given for its distinct ‘click’ sound it makes combined with positive reinforcement. So, if the clicker has to be combined with positive encouragement, why use it at all?
Well, training is all about timing, whether you use treats, your voice or a clicker. However, the use of treats is not as swift as using the clicker can be. Furthermore, voice commands though they are immediate are not as consistent as the clicker. The sound of the clicker never wavers as compared to the sound of a voice which has many tones that can confuse your dog. Commands need to have the same pitch each time, used so as not to prolong training.
Step 1… Marking the behaviour
When your dog does the wanted behaviour click and reward immediately (praise, treat or favourite toy). For example, when your dog sits, the second his back-end touches the ground, click and reward. It is very important that the click is done instantly, but if your timing is not perfect no harm will happen but it will take your dog longer to make the association. The animal should connect the behaviour with the sound and reward within a few clicks.
Step 2… Add the cue
Once you are confident that your pet understands and is making the association between the wanted behaviour, the click and the reward, you can now move on. Now, you need to add a cue to provoke the behaviour. This can be anything you can imagine whether it’s a word, hand command, or even a body movement. I personally like to use a hand and voice command to ensure the animal will get the prompt even when he can’t hear or see you. What you want to do is give the signal just before your dog does the behaviour, click and reward.
After repeating this several times, your pet will start realising he must perform what is being asked in order to get the click and reward. If for any reason the animal is not responding to the cue, back track and see if you can pinpoint whether your pet is responding to the cue or just automatically doing the action to get the click and reward. If the second is the case perhaps you need to work on timing (give the cue faster) and be sure not to click and reward until the dog performs only when asked. Maybe your manner or the environment changed? Assure that you make no changes to how you give the cue and where you are doing it until your dog is confident and responding perfectly on command. Or maybe the reward you’re providing is not pleasing your pet enough.
Be patient, no one learns at the same pace and the same goes for your dog. If you start getting frustrated, take a break so that no negative energy is given off while you train. Animals are very sensitive to their human companions’ energy and negative feelings can come out in your training and bring about correcting your pet when they don’t achieve the desired behaviour. Negative corrections are not used in clicker training because it slows the progress and when only positive reinforcement is used as it creates a stronger bond between you and your pet.
Then can it be used to correct unwanted behaviour? In my opinion the answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no’. The only way bad actions can be halted with clicker training is by replacing it with a wanted action. The urge to hear the click and get the incentive will be much stronger than continuing the bad action. Over time the unwanted behaviour will be a thing of the past.
You will eventually need to wean your dog off the clicker/reward system behaviour by behaviour. Once your pet can perform a task with perfection, the clicker/reward does not need to be done for each instance and eventually be stopped all together.
Kudos to positive reinforcement training…
There has long been a debate over whether positive or negative reinforcement is better. I’ve used both methods and can say both have their advantages. The clicker positive reinforcement training method takes more patience and time in my opinion but tends to create a stronger bond between you and your dog. This method builds a dog’s confidence and strengthens their trust in their human companions.
Keeping all these points in mind, remember to do your research and find the training method that comes naturally to you because in the end if you do not have self-confidence in your training then you cannot convey it to your dog. Above all, make it an enjoyable experience for you and your furry companion.
(Mishell Albino is founder and owner of Centeno Kennels, Ontario. She is certified animal health technician with over 20 years experience in the study of animal behaviour, breeding and training at various levels.)