I recently did a session with a family for their new husky puppy. They wanted to be sure they got off on the right foot as far as housetraining, puppy biting, etc (Yeah!). When we started talking about training, the young daughter asked about a clicker. I was surprised (but excited) that she had heard about clicker training.
Clicker training is a great way to work on your pet’s behavior, but there is some confusion on how to use a clicker. A common misconception is that the trainer uses the clicker to make the animal do something. When used appropriately, the clicker is just information to your pet – it tells him that the behavior he was doing when he heard the click is going to be rewarded. It doesn’t make him do the behavior in the first place, but it tells him that the behavior was a good choice.
In scientific terms, the clicker (or a verbal marker word like “good boy” or “yes”) is a conditioned reinforcer (where conditioned refers to learned). What that means is that the click has been paired with an unconditioned reinforcer (which is something that is needed for survival, like food). We’ve probably all seen our pet’s face light up at the prospect of a delicious bit of food. By pairing the click with the food, the click comes to elicit that excited feeling in your pet. He will want to work to earn that click!
Why bother with a clicker though, if a verbal marker word can be used in the same way? There are a few advantages to using a clicker. It’s a much more uniform, consistent sound to our pet’s brain. When we speak, we naturally vary our tone, so when we’re excited, our verbal marker comes out “GOOG BOY!!!!”. When we got the behavior we wanted, but were frustrated with how long it took, our verbal marker might come out “*sigh* good boy.” To our pet, those are different sounds, while the click is the same every time. And the clicker is often better information from your pet’s perspective. We talk so much to our pets, that they can get pretty good at tuning us out. How many of us use “good boy” as a marker word, yet also randomly throughout the day say “Oh, what a good boy you are!” or “Hey buddy, you’re a good boy, aren’t you?” We tend to dilute our marker words by saying them randomly in casually talking to our pet. A properly charged clicker should always resonate with your pet.
There are disadvantages to using a clicker too. The biggest one is that you have to have the clicker with you to use it. While it’s pretty difficult to leave our voice behind when we go out to walk the dog, it’s easy to forget to bring the clicker. The clicker also ties up one of your hands, and it can sometimes be difficult to manage a clicker, and a leash and treats. But with practice, it becomes easier, and some of the results you can get in your pet’s behavior are well worth it. Next time we’ll look at how to charge the clicker and use it to train behaviors by capturing and shaping.