In order to explain clicker training, you first have to look at its basis, which is operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a fancy scientific term that refers to the technique of positive reinforcement by means of a conditioned reinforcer, in other words, a reward. Animal trainers have used this technique to train all kinds of animals including rats, pigeons, dolphins, birds, rabbits, dogs, cats, horses and even fish. Examples of the tasks that animals are trained to carry out include pigeons that carry messages for the military in areas where other types of communications fail, dolphins that deploy weapons to military targets in the ocean during wartime, and seagulls that find and report on life rafts and swimmers that have drifted too far away from the shoreline.
Operant conditioning works with the animal’s natural tendency to avoid actions that invoke negative results, and to repeat actions that produce positive results. The conditioned reinforcer, the clicker, is a bridging stimulus that signals to the animal that a reward is forthcoming once it performs the desired action. That reward is the primary reinforcer, because it’s something that the animal really loves, such as food, a special treat or a favourite toy. This is where clicker training comes into play, because the clicker becomes the conditioned reinforcer.
When used correctly, the sound of the clicker and offering a treat work together as one. The clicker marks the animal’s response to let it know that it was correct. In order for operant conditioning to work, you need to offer the reward simultaneously with the desired behaviour. Vocal reinforcement, combined with a reward, is often too slow for the animal to associate with performing the correct action. Therefore, clicker training works effectively. Every person’s voice sounds different, which confuses the animal. The clicker offers a consistent sound; therefore, several people can train the same animal.
Most clickers are made of plastic with a strip of metal running along the surface. When you push and release this strip of metal, it makes a high-pitched and unique sound that most animals can recognise quickly and consistently. The clicker is often loaded first. This means you must teach the animal to associate the sound of the clicker with a reward. This repetitive process involves offering a treat each time you click until the animal learns to associate the clicking sound with positive reinforcement. A small treat that the animal can consume in one bite helps the trainer to click faster, therefore making it much easier to load the clicker. It’s important to note that with some animals, such as horses, the clicker should not be loaded. Horses require a much clearer marker, so that it will not expect a treat without first producing the desired action.
Clicker training is versatile and the trainer can use the concept to train a variety of animals. For example, whistles work well with dolphins. You can train fish by using a quick flash of light. A vibrating collar is an effective training device used with hearing-impaired animals.
Start with simple tricks that resemble the animal’s natural behaviour. For a more complicated trick, it is easier to break it down into several smaller actions. When the animal learns each action, you can then put them together into one trick.
Because clicker training has become very popular in recent years, there are a number of books, DVDs, websites and television shows dedicated to it. Clicker training is not only a gentle, humane method of training animals, it works when many other methods have failed. It has saved countless animals from ending up in the animal shelter due to bad behaviour. It’s inexpensive and easy to learn, so give clicker training a try.