There are some great resources that can fully explain clicker training but if you are just starting and find yourself becoming overwhelmed by terms like operant conditioning, event marker and positive reinforcement, here is a non-scientific, non-animal example to help you understand.
Imagine that you are trying to be a stand-up comic but no one laughs at your jokes, even if they are funny. Your audiences only boo when they don’t like a joke.
- How would you know which jokes are good?
- What are the chances that you will keep doing comedy?
- Are you going to be eager to try new material to see if that is funny?
The answer is no. You need that laughter.
Clicker training with animals works on the same principle. The “click” is like laughter to a comedian. It tells a dog that what they did in that instant is what you are looking for. It is the most effective way you can communicate what you want your dog to do.
With a comedian, the laughter also acts as the reward. With an animal, the click is paired with a reinforcer like food or a toy that will make them eager to do it again. You can read about reinforcers that dogs like here.
When they do something you don’t want, ignore it. When a crowd is silent, that tells you all you need to know about a joke right? Booing is not necessary. Silence means you probably shouldn’t tell that joke again. It didn’t get you what you wanted. Silence means you need to try something else. It says the same thing to a dog. Eventually, the behavior that doesn’t get a response will stop because it is not getting the dog what he wants.
And you will not have to click forever. After you have done a comedic bit for a while, you know what works. You could easily go into a studio and record a comedy album with no audience and no feedback. The same is true with your dogs. The clicking is only necessary when the dogs are still learning the behavior.
And that is basically it. Sure, there is a bit more to training a behavior but at its core, it is telling the dog that is what you want with a click, and then reinforcing the behavior. And not only do you get a dog that is behaving the way you want, it is incredibly rewarding to watch your dog learn, so training is fun for both you and your dog.
If you are interested in learning more about clicker training, start by checking out Karen Pryor’s website and reading her book, Reaching the Animal Mind, or read some of the clicker training articles on quadrust.com like this one from the Scranton Dog Training Examiner or this one from Fort Worth Dog Training Examiner.