Clicker training was originally developed for the training of sea mammals at Sea World Marine Park performances. It involves the use of a hand held device that makes a click sound much like the sound a Dolphin makes. Initially, the trainers were looking for a way to communicate success to a whale or other sea mammal at the precise moment that the animal offered the desired behavior.
During training, the whale was usually rewarded with a fish but if the behavior involved sending the whale to the opposite end of the pool to jump through a hoop, then it was a long time before he came back to get his fish. The clicker became the “bridge” between the desired action and the fish reward. The trainer could click the moment the whale jumped and reward it later.
In order for this system to work the trainer first needed to connect the click sound to something positive. This was easily done by making the click noise and immediately following it with a fish. In a very short time, the whale understood that the click meant that a fish was forthcoming. This is now called “loading the clicker.”
Clicker training has since been applied to many different animals and even used to train people where a very precise action needs to be marked.
Perhaps the biggest value of the clicker is that it teaches people to be patient and observant when training their dogs. They must wait for the dog to offer a wanted behavior and then notice the instant it happens so that they can click and reward it. New trainers also learn to view actions as a chain of smaller behaviors. For example, if you want a dog to touch something with his paw you would first click and reward any movement towards the object. This is the beginning of what is called “shaping a behavior.” As the dog figures out that the object is of value (because moving towards it earns him a click and treat,) the trainer withholds the reward until the dog interacts with the object and actually touches it in some way. Little by little the criterion is raised and the dog is only clicked if he uses his paw to touch.
Clicker training is totally positive and encourages dogs to offer behaviors. It is very valuable for teaching tricks and can be used to teach obedience with some dogs. The problem with the clicker training method is that it relies on a willing subject since there is no compulsion involved. (Trainers of Sea mammals couldn’t force their animals even if they wanted to!) If a dog really does not want to do something that he knows how to do, a clicker will not compel him to perform.
As with any implement for training dogs, the clicker can be a great tool, misused or used for the wrong things. There are many books and tapes out that attempt to teach you how to train everything using a clicker. “Clicker trainers” are often very devoted to the system and some behave as if it was a religion and any other kind of training is wrong! While clicking may serve as a good introduction to teaching concepts, I do not like seeing it used to diffuse aggression or attempt to enforce required behaviors like a recall.
For years trainers used praise to let a dog know when he was doing the right thing and consequences when the dog chose to disobey. Praise followed with a food reward is still a great training system. People with good timing and an understanding of how to teach behaviors may not choose to use a clicker. Some dogs are afraid of the click sound and others tune into it and find it a very clear message. Compared to Sea World trainers, we have a decided advantage; our dogs are not as large as whales or dolphins! We can use a “hands on” approach to teach them what is expected.
If you do experiment with clicker training or train with someone who uses it, keep an open mind, but see it for what it is, just another tool to help you communicate with your dog.