Clicker training is a popular form of obedience training, and with good reason. If you haven’t seen clickers before, they are lightweight, plastic gadgets that can fit on your key ring. In the center is a button that presses a thin steel plate. This creates a crisp, satisfying click. Dog training clickers will only put you out $2-6, and their affordability and ease of use make them a mighty training tool. But the biggest strength of the clicker is consistency.
Clickers work on the principle of operant conditioning. In fact, the training clicker was invented by graduate students of B.F. Skinner, the behaviorist who first described operant conditioning. In this type of learning, behavior is modified according to its consequences. Example: you give your dog the command to sit while guiding the behavior. At the exact moment the dog performs the behavior, you use the clicker to mark the moment and offer praise or treats. The dog begins to associate the clicking noise with good behavior and reward.
Dogs have very short association times (under 2 seconds, if you believe the guys in white lab coats). This means that in order for behavior to be reinforced, you have to mark and reward the behavior within a very short window of time. Many people find that clickers are a faster and more reliable way of marking the moment than treats or praise alone. Eventually, the link between the click noise and reward should become strong enough that treats can be used less.
Clients often find us after clicker training didn’t produce the results they were promised. These people may have had a bad experience with clicker training, but clickers do produce results when used the right way and for their correct purpose: marking the moment.
We achieve our results through stages of training. Marking the moment is the most important part of our first stage: foundation training. We stay consistent with lots of praise and reward to make sure dogs know exactly what they’re doing right. With time and repetition, the dog’s response becomes automatic. You might be surprised at how quickly a dog can learn a new concept when communication is clear. Although this stage teaches the dog the desired behavior, we can’t stop there!
Our next 3 phases are to ensure functionality. When you’re out in public, you don’t want to have to depend on having a tool with you. If your dog is distracted and wandering away from you in a high traffic area, you want to know that they will come back when you ask them to, regardless of what you have in your pocket.
Take the video below, for example. Gene had his dog trained with us 5 years before we took this video in Boston Common. You can see that the dog still has impeccable obedience with no handler help or tools, even though there is a lot going on.
At the end of the day, clickers are a great tool and can play an important role in giving your dog a solid foundation in obedience. If you want to make those results functional in the real world for years to come, there is still much work to be done after clicker training. We’ll go over other training tools and stages in future posts. Stay tuned!