Frequently Asked Questions

What is a clicker?

Clickers are small plastic boxes with a metal interior which clicks when it is flexed with your thumb or finger. These make a quite loud click, so if your pet is quite sound sensitive, you might want to muffle it when you first introduce it. You may remember these from your childhood as being all metal and they came in a variety of shapes but most commonly had a frog on printed on them.

 

Does clicker training require special skills?

"Clicker training" is an animal trainer's slang for the techniques used when training a behavior with positive reinforcement and a marker signal, the sound of a plastic clicker. The trainer picks a desirable behavior and "clicks" it, as it is happening. The click tells the animal exactly what it did to earn the food, praise, petting, or toy that follows, Dogs (and cats) quickly learn to repeat whatever they were doing when they hear the click. By clicking various small actions the trainer can "build" the final behavior -- heeling, retrieving, greeting visitors politely, etc. -- step by step.

 

How does clicker training differ from other training methods?

The biggest difference is in the abundant and constructive use of conditioned reinforcers. The second biggest difference between traditional trainers and clicker trainers is that clicker trainers are able to beak behaviors down into small, achievable steps, and thus approach any behavioral goal via conditioned reinforcement. Finally, in general clicker trainers do not rely on punishment to teach behaviors.

 

What can you train an animal to do?

In the words of Dr. Marian Breland Bailey of Animal Behavior Enterprises, "Anything they are physically and mentally capable of doing." You name it; sit, stay, find the remote control, get your slippers, roll over, stop barking, etc. If you are able to beak the behavior down into conditioned re-enforceable parts, your pet can learn it.

 

Can I use the clicker to teach my dog NOT to do something? 

Most ways of using positive reinforcement to reduce the frequency of a problem behavior involve creating or increasing desired behaviors. For example, one approach is to train an incompatible behavior. You can train the dog to sit when someone comes in the house. The dog can't sit and jump up at the same time, so sitting  becomes more likely under those conditions,  and makes jumping less likely. The dog can now earn reinforcement by sitting and being greeted by the guest.

You can train any behavior to function in this way, as long as the behavior is intermittently reinforced.

You can also put the undesired behavior on cue. For example, you teach the dog to rear up on its hind legs with a command like "paws up" and offer your forearm as a place for the dog to rest its front legs. In training this performance, it will be important to never reinforce the behavior if it occurs in the absence of the command. After this training is well-established the dog will be unlikely to jump up when the command is not offered.

Of course, there are many other ways of getting rid of unwanted behaviors. However, they do not involve the use of a clicker.

 

Does clicker training work just for dogs?

Ever wonder how they train dolphins and your favorite dog "stars? You guessed it, clicker training. Do you have cat, not a dog? Or a bird, or a rabbit, or a horse? Clicker training is harmless and fun for the animal. And with clicker training, you get all your pet's intelligence and ability working "for" you, rather than against you. With a little practice, you'll discover more delightful aspects of your pets intelligence and personality than you ever imagined. Clicker training opens the door to a new level of mutual understanding and communication between us and each of our cherished animal companions.

 

What is the difference between a  primary (unconditioned) reinforcer and a conditioned (secondary) reinforcer...and why in the world should you care?

A primary reinforcer (also known as an unconditional reinforcer) is anything the subject will work to get -- that is, anything the subject finds desirable, whether it seems worthwhile to someone else, or not. Like food; attention; petting; affection; or whatever. A primary reinforcer, to repeat, is ANYTHING the animal will work for.

A secondary reinforcer (conditioned reinforcer) is an initially meaningless signal or stimulus that stands for one or more of the primary reinforcers. Secondary or conditioned reinforcers are learned symbols of primary reinforcers: as, for example, good grades, cash money, the bells on a slot machine, a whistle, or a clicker. A conditioned reinforcer means, "you're going to get something you REALLY like (a primary reinforcer) later.

The "click" can easily be delivered at the precise moment intended and does not require the animal to be watching. This helps the trainer selectively choose the exact form of the animals behavior that is desired. Because less precise reinforcements, such as a pat on the head, often involve a slight delay, between the exact behavior and the actual delivery of the reinforcement, the behavior that you wanted is sometimes not the behavior you are actually reinforcing. For example, your dog sits on command, you lean over to pat him on the head, he turns his head to sniff the gorgeous poodle next to him, your hand touches his head. You have just reinforced his head turning to the other dog.

The "click" starts out as neutral stimuli, having no effect on behavior. It becomes a conditioned reinforcer by occurring at about the same time as a food treat, play time or another primary reinforcer. In other words, the animal learns, " Cool, I heard that noise again, that means I'm going to get a treat soon!". Your pet will start trying to find ways to make you click.

 

How is the conditioned reinforcer (the "click" of a clicker) used in a training session?

Research has shown that the more frequently a behavior is reinforced, the more often that behavior will occur. Any reinforcer, primary (a food treat) or conditioned (a "click"), selectively increases any behavior it follows, which is how you get specific behaviors to increase while un-reinforced behaviors do not. For example, if you are teaching your dog to sit and the reinforcer is delivered only when the dog is sitting, it will tend to sit until you deliver the reinforcer, whether it is conditioned reinforcer such as a slick or a primary reinforcer such as food.

If you progressively delay delivery of the reinforcer while the dog is sitting, the dog will learn to sit for longer periods of time because you are reinforcing longer, rather than shorter, sitting responses.

A clicker allows you to mark the exact instant that the animal is doing the right thing. With the conditioned reinforcer (the click) you can tell the animal what you want more clearly, in circumstances where you could not present food in mid-behavior. For example, you can click as the dog clears a jump, while it is is mid air, or you ca click behavior that occurs at a distance, such as retrieving, or that occurs very briefly, such as pricking the ears. Once you have established the clicker as a positive conditioned reinforcer by repeatedly pairing it with a primary reinforcer (food treats, play time, etc) you can use it to selectively increase the behavior you want the animal to perform.