What is clicker training?
A clicker is handheld device. Some clickers have a loop that you can attach to your wrist or your training pouch so you don’t drop it… this is helpful for people like me who loose things.. does anyone else lose their gloves and still wish mittens were an acceptable accessory for adults?! When you press down on the clicker it makes a ‘click’ noise. The noise is short, distinct and always the same.
If you don’t use a clicker as a marker you can use a marker word instead such as “yes”.
How does clicker training work?
A clicker is used to mark a behaviour that an animal does that you would like to see repeated. After the animal provides a behaviour, the clicker or marker word is used, then the animal is offered a reward such as treat. Ideally the reward is delivered within a
few moments. The science behind training is that when an animal is provided with reinforcement for a behaviour they do, they are likely to repeat this behaviour in the future. For example, if I do the washing up and then someone gives me a chocolate bar once I’ve finished washing up I’m more likely to repeat this behaviour in the future….I find chocolate very reinforcing!
What are reinforcers?
Reinforcers can vary between individuals. A reinforcer is something that increases the likelihood that a specific behaviour or response will occur. Reinforcers can include toys, food, play or attention. It’s important to remember that external things in our pet’s environment can be very reinforcing – the chance to run after a bird or a squirrel may be more enticing than a game of tug. When we’re training it’s important that we are matching the reinforcement we are providing with the task we are asking our pet to do. For example if we are training a dog to walk nicely on the lead and we have always used something tasty like liver paste, but this time we’re only rewarding them with their kibble this can be punishing to them as they anticipate a higher reward. This can weaken any training done on loose lead walking potentially. It’s important to remember that there are competing items in the environment that are more interesting and when first training a continuous rate of reinforcement is important.
Here is some terminology:
Primary reinforcer: Food is a primary reinforcer. It’s properties (the smell and taste) are rewarding to a pet.
Secondary reinforcer: This is something that previously was neutral and didn’t mean anything (like the sound of a clicker). When the sound of the click has repeatedly been paired with food then it’s thought to have become reinforcing.
What are the theories behind how clicker training works?
The reinforcing hypothesis
As the clicker/marker word is paired with something reinforcing such as food, one idea is that the clicker becomes a predictor signal which becomes reinforcing for the animal just as the food is. The clicker/ marker word is now paired with the food and therefore become reinforcing itself.
The bridging hypothesis
This is the idea that the clicker is a useful tool to capture the behaviour and the time delay between the behaviour you like being provided and the reward being delivered. Often our pets behave in a way we like when they are the other side of the room, so using a clicker/marker is helpful to capture this behaviour until we can reach them and provide a food reward.
The marking hypothesis
This is the idea that the sound of the clicker/marker word captures the animal’s desirable behaviour as it’s given.
What considerations should I make before using clicker training?
Dog’s and cats have excellent hearing – it’s superior to our own! Some pets may find the noise of the clicker startling or even frightening so it’s a good idea to test it out by placing the clicker under your sleeve to muffle the sound and see how they respond. If your dog or cat is showing any fear related body language signs – some examples can be seen here and here you may need to desensitise them to the sound or simply stick with a marker word rather than using a clicker when training your pet.
Clicker training can be fun and help teamwork and bonding however but it can also be a bit confusing so if you’re going to use it it’s a good idea to ask a dog trainer for support or do lots of reading before starting clicker training with your pet.
‘An introduction to the reinforcement schedules, shaping and clicker training Part 1’, Dr Louise Buckley, University of Edinburgh lecture, (2021).
‘How clicker training works: Comparing Reinforcing, Marking, and Bridging Hypotheses,’ Feng et al., (2015), Applied Animal Behaviour Science, accessible via https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/How-clicker-training-works%3A-Comparing-Reinforcing%2C-Feng-Howell/2a0d13970ef5ff99b2e919d7bdbb5ffa0c2f590b
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