Clickers are little mechanical devices that make a distinct click noise which communicates to the dog that the action they have just performed was correct. This is known as marking the behaviour. The click is followed by a positive reinforcer like food so the dog is more likely to repeat the desired behaviour again.
The timing of the click is essential to mark the desired behaviour. If you were taking a photo of your dog’s behaviour you press the button to capture the picture. The click is exactly the same.
Once you’ve clicked you must back it with the reinforcer (food) but if there is a slight delay in the delivery it doesn’t matter too much as long as it arrives shortly after. You should never tease the dog in pretending to give it to them.
When training with a clicker, dogs are learning by operant conditioning. Their behaviour is controlled by consequences. This can be a good or bad consequence. We tend to focus on the positive rather than the negative because research suggests that punishment can decrease the frequency of an unwanted behaviour but will result in another unwanted behaviour being offered. The problem with using punishment as a training method is the timing. Punishment is always delivered after the event so therefore is rarely connected to the specific unwanted behaviour. From the dog’s point of view punishment isn’t clear and tends to be a meaningless event. It is less effective than using a marker (clicker) and positive reinforcer (food/toys) in changing the behaviour.
Another type of learning that happens with clicker training is classical conditioning. The dog can associate an action, event, object, place, person with a pleasant/unpleasant consequence. Although clicker training always starts with classical conditioning it quickly progresses to operant conditioning once the dog intentionally repeats an action to earn the reinforcer (reward).
Operantly conditioned dogs will try new behaviours and clicker training is a fabulous way to build confidence in a dog because they have control over the consequences of their actions. They also become enthusiastic because they expect the consequences to be pleasurable.
Clicker training is a fabulous way for us humans to learn patience by waiting for the behaviour to happen. We can help them and guide them but ultimately the dog should offer the behaviour by themselves. It also helps us to take our hands off the dog. The days of forcing a dog into a sit or down are long over when we can show them or capture the behaviour.
So remember, when using the clicker we…..
Wait for the desired behaviour
Mark the behaviour (click)
Reinforce the behaviour (reward)
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