Dog training methods have waxed and waned in popularity for the past 50 years or so. Exemplified by the work of William Koehler, a trainer of dogs for the military and the movies, early schooling involved mild aversion training — if the dog got out of position, he was jerked by the collar and leash as a reminder to pay attention.
As more and more people got involved in obedience training for the show ring and for good manners, methods generally modified to meet the needs and personalities of owners and dogs. “Motivation” became the guideline; training became a game in many schools and clubs. Names such as Jack Volhard, Job Michael Evans, Carol Lea Benjamin, and Ian Dunbar popped up on book jackets and in seminars, followed by a host of others advocating gentle methods of coaxing dogs to learn good manners and turn in stellar performance in the show ring.
Clicker training is the latest in this evolution of dog training methods. While some trainers continue to jerk dogs around and punish them for mistakes, others choose to reward the dog for appropriate actions even before they are formally taught a command. The click is the trainer’s non-verbal version of “By George, he’s got it!”
Clicker training was developed for training dolphins in aquarium shows. It is based on behavior shaping, a technique that leads the trainee to the appropriate response, and the principle that training is a relationship between two entities, not something that one imposes upon the other. Biologist Karen Pryor describes it thus: “Training is a loop, a two-way communication in which an event at one end of the loop changes events at the other . . . ”
The clicker itself is an adaptation of a child’s toy. A million years ago when some of us were young, we played with small metal toys in the shape of various animals, toys that made a clicking sound when the metal tab was compressed. These clickers were available in five and ten cent stores, especially around Halloween. Today’s clickers used for dog training look like rectangular boxes about an inch long and a half inch wide. The noise is made by depressing a flexible metal “lid” in the tiny “box.”
Clickers are combined with food rewards as follows: the dog does something — anything — that the owner wants to reinforce. Instead of saying “good dog!” the owner depresses the clicker and pops a treat into the dog’s mouth. At first, the dog has no idea that the clicker means “good dog!” and the treat is a reward for a behavior, but if he’s food oriented, he probably catches on quickly.
Clickers work best with untrained puppies. To teach the “sit” command with the clicker, the trainer sits on the floor with the puppy and a supply of special treats. (Use tiny bits of chicken or hot dog, Cheerios, cheddar cheese, Bil-Jac, etc. in small bits so the pup doesn’t have to spend time chewing and finding crumbs.) The trainer watches the puppy in silence. If the puppy starts to sit (or completely sits), he gets a click and a treat — one click and one treat per success, no matter how long the pup remains sitting. Each time the pup sits again, however, he gets a repeat click and treat. After he gets the idea that the click precedes the treat and the sit precedes the click, the trainer can add the word “sit” as the pup lowers his rear to the floor.
Once the idea of action, click, treat is firmly established in the puppy’s mind, additional commands are easier to teach. The advantage of the method is that it is not necessary to touch the pup to put him in position and therefore eliminates the squirming and protesting that marks many attempts to teach the pup by placing and holding him in a sit or down or stand.
Clickers can be used to train cats as well. Although cats do not need to learn to sit or lie down on command, they can learn to come when called, to get into a carrier, and do some tricks.
If a dog has been trained with conventional methods, i.e., to wait for a command before doing anything, it is often difficult to transfer them to the clicker method. Sometimes click-and-treat games help establish the connection. Clicker devotees use a game called “101 Things to do with a Box” that is designed to help the dog relax and learn to get a reward by showing initiative in behavior.
The game is played with a box, a clicker, and a supply of treats. At first, the trainer gives a click and treat every time the dog shows some sort of behavior associated with the box. If he looks at the box, sniffs the box, paws at the box, mouths the box, attacks the box, steps in the box, picks up the box, etc., he gets a click and treat. The trainer can make up goals. For example, after the dog understands the “action-click-treat” sequence, the objective could be to get the dog to stand in the box. If so, the dog would be clicked and rewarded only when he paws at the box or puts his foot on or in it. This sequence can easily be adapted to teaching the dog to lie down on a rug or go to his bed.
Dogs that are clicker-trained seem to enjoy training sessions and often learn to create behaviors that might earn them a click and treat. Each lesson learned makes it easier to teach the next one, for the dog is thinking about what to do to get the reward.
Once each lesson is learned, the food reward can be cut back. The dog will continue to work for a reward every third or fourth or tenth repetition, for he knows that eventually, he’ll get that treat.
Clicker training takes patience, especially for dogs already trained with traditional methods. Although many dogs blossom with the method, previously trained dogs often shut down from the stress of not understanding what is expected of them. The box game can help, but it may take several hours of play spread over several weeks to get results.
Clicker training also takes patience for dog owners who are accustomed to the command and obey response. These owners have a tough time not telling the dog what to do.
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