Have you ever seen a dolphin perform in a show? Oftentimes the dolphin will do a trick—touching a ball with its flipper, leaping out of the water—and its trainer will blow a whistle and reward the dolphin with fish. How did the dolphin learn these behaviors? In most cases, the answer is through clicker training.
Clicker training is an animal-training method based on an animal's response to an object or a particular movement. The term "clicker" is used loosely—any device that makes a short, unique sound can be used as a clicker. Back to the dolphin example: Even though the trainer is using a whistle instead of a clicker device, it is still classified as clicker training. We spoke with dog trainer Nicole Shumate, executive director at Paws and Effect, on the basics of clicker training and why it's a great training technique for your pet.
The key to clicker training is consistency; when the animal reacts to the desired object or moves in the way it's supposed to, a unique sound is used so the animal links the sound with its action. The animal is also rewarded for its action. Clicker training works by using both classical and operant conditioning. With classical conditioning, the animal begins to associate an action (or object) with a particular consequence. Hence, a dog begins to associate sitting with a "click" noise and a treat. This moves into operant conditioning, where the animal is now intentionally performing an action in order to receive the "consequence"—in this case, a treat.
Shumate uses the clicker training technique when training service dogs at her organization. Because service dogs are required to move their bodies in particular ways, clicker training is effective in establishing these behaviors early on so that they become natural for the dog. When the dog is trained through operant conditioning, it remembers these behaviors because it was aware of them throughout the training rather than simply sitting by habit and receiving a reward.
The use of the clicker is integral in the training method; the distinct sound "marks" the behavior, letting the animal know exactly what it is being rewarded for. In other training methods, the animal might not connect the reward with the correct movement or action, since there isn't a noise associated with the particular action. This training technique is completely humane, relying on your interaction with the animal for results instead of using force. Rather than forcing the animal to do a particular trick or movement, clicker training teaches the animal through rewards and positive reinforcement, yielding excellent results in the long run.
Clicker training is relatively simple in terms of the general technique. Keeping consistent with the training and repeating it often are the most challenging aspects of clicker training. Shumate walks us through the basic technique of clicker training with an example of how she trains her service dogs. Step 1: Get the dog to react to the clicker. To do this, click, then give a treat. Do this until your pet associates the click with a treat.
Step 2: Get your dog to do something you like (such as sitting or walking toward you), then click and reward. For example, one of the most important movements for a service dog is taking three steps backward. To get her dogs to perform this action, Shumate will toss a treat to the dog, either under the paws or near them, as the dog is sitting or lying down, causing the dog to shift its weight back and maybe even take a step or two back to get the treat. Once the dog does this action, Shumate clicks and rewards the dog.
Step 3: Repetition is key in establishing the new behavior. Once your dog begins to move how you want it to, add levels of difficulty to achieve your end result. Take small steps to achieve your overall goal. For Shumate, the three steps back leads to opening a door or moving out of the way for mobility dogs. Guide your dog to the end result by using the clicker and treating the dog whenever it performs the action. As your dog begins to do more advanced movements, only click and treat for these actions instead of the initial base actions.
Step 4: After your dog knows the new action, you can add a word to the movement so it relates the movement to the word. Eventually your dog will no longer require a click and a treat, and it will be able to perform the action on command.