We talk a lot about clicker training at TGDS so you might be wondering what it is and why you should use it when training your dog. Clicker training is a form of classical conditioning, where a neutral stimulus (click) is paired with an unconditioned stimulus (food). It is a positive reinforcement training technique where you use the click from the clicker to “mark” the behavior you want from your dog. For example, if you want to teach your dog to sit, you would wait for your dog to place their butt on the ground then click the moment they do to let your dog know that is the behavior you want. In order for the clicker to work, it has to be “charged.” In other words, the sound of the click has to be paired with a positive reward, such as a treat, to build the association that a click means the dog did something good. To charge the clicker, you click and treat multiple times in a row. Your dog will quickly learn that the click means a treat is coming, and then the clicker will become your most powerful training tool. To maintain the power of the tool you must always pair the click with a treat, even if you make a mistake in clicking. In more advanced training, there can be a longer time between click and treat, or during a sequence of behaviors, but for novice trainers you must always pair a click with an immediate treat.
Many animals, including dogs, learn by the consequences of their behavior and they will only do behaviors that work for them, meaning behaviors that give them some sort of reward or gain. Whenever your dog is doing a behavior, think about what he is gaining by doing it. If your dog is doing a behavior you don’t like, ask yourself what is rewarding about that behavior. For example, if your dog jumps on you, do you pay attention to him? That is rewarding whether you pet the dog or yell at him. Why does your dog pull on leash? Dogs pull to get to a spot them want to sniff. If they get to that spot, then you just rewarded the pulling. Clicker training helps you accurately target the behaviors you want your dog to do more of and provide a reward with the behavior. The more your dog gets rewarded for those good behaviors, the more he will offer them and the less he will offer behaviors he does not get rewarded for.
Learning by consequence is called operant conditioning. There are four quadrants of operant conditioning: positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative reinforcement, and negative punishment. Positive reinforcement is defined as adding something to the environment to increase the occurrence of a behavior (e.g., treat for sitting). Positive punishment is defined as adding something to the environment to decrease the occurrence of a behavior (e.g., bark collars that adds a shock to decrease barking). Negative reinforcement is taking something away from the environment to increase the occurrence of a behavior (e.g., releasing pressure on a choke or prong collar when your dog stops pulling). Negative punishment is taking something away from the environment to decrease the occurrence of a behavior (e.g., removing your attention when your dog jumps on you or gets mouthy). Scientific evidence shows that positive reinforcement training methods are as effective, if not more effective than aversive training methods (those that rely on positive punishment and negative reinforcement, e.g., shock collars or choke collars), and are better for dog welfare.
One of the main concerns with using clicker training is that you will always have to have treats on you for your dog to listen. This is not true. Clicker training is merely a tool to teach your dog the behaviors in a quick, efficient manner that they understand, and then you can gradually remove the clicker. It still helps to have treats on you for the occasional reward, but once the dogs learn the behaviors they will continue to offer them even without the click and treat. They usually do so enthusiastically as well, because they have a positive association with training and are excited to work with you.
If you are interested in implementing clicker training into your training, there are many great online resources or you can sign up for a local class with Exercise Finished or Dakin Humane Society. The staff at the TGDS is also experiences with clicker training, so feel free to ask us any questions! Happy clicking!
For more information on clicker training visit Karen Pryor’s website.
Ziv, G. 2017. The effects of using aversive training methods in dogs – A review. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. 19:50-60.