When it comes to training, dogs and people seek to please each other. Getting there, though, can be a challenge.
Clicker training encourages “operant conditioning,” or the process of an animal intentionally performing a behavior in order to bring about a desired consequence. By pairing a behavior with a positive consequence, dogs learn that they control their environment through their actions. Behaviors that are positively reinforced are likely to be repeated. Once that behavior is repeated, we link that behavior to a cue such as “Sit.”
Clicker training bridges the gap from classical to operent conditioning. Your dog will behave with purpose, rather than by habit. These behaviors are permanently instilled and can be recalled years later. Meanwhile, aware they can control consequences of their actions (performance leads to reward), they become eager, confident, even enthusiastic to try to learn new behaviors.
WHY IS A CLICKER USED?
Clicker training differs from other reward-based training in that the animal is “told” exactly which behavior earned it a reward. To the dog, this “event marker” is communicated with a distinct and unique sound, a click, which occurs at the exact time as the desired behavior. The reward follows. The animal will quickly learn to repeat the behavior that was marked by the clicker. Without the use of an event marker, your dog might not associate the reward with the desired behavior, as it will take some time to get the reward to the dog. The desired behavior has already passed and your dog might not understand what exactly they are being reinforced for.
WHY DON'T CLICKER TRAINERS USE PUNISHMENTS AS WELL AS REWARDS?
A consequence of any behavior can be unpleasant as well as pleasant. However, research proves that while punishment may decrease the frequency of an unwanted behavior, it usually produces another unwanted, or even unpredictable behavior.
In addition, punishment is not usually identified with an event marker. It almost always comes after the event, but the connection to the specific behavior is rarely made by the animal. To the animal, punishment is a random, meaningless event. This makes punishment less effective in changing behavior than the combined use of an event marker and positive reinforcement.
Clicker trainers also build a stronger, more rewarding relationship with their animals when they focus on the positive rather than the negative. Like the difference between an animal behaving with intention rather than by habit, the difference in attitude and enthusiasm is vast between an animal that works to earn rewards rather than to avoid punishment.
DOES THE CLICKER NEED TO BE USED FOREVER?
No. Once a behavior is learned and occurs on cue, the animal understands the behavior and there's usually no need to click. Clicker trainers can maintain the behavior by replacing high value rewards with intermittent and less intensive rewards, like a pat or praise. Learned cues and behaviors are also maintained by real-life rewards; for example, sitting quietly at the door is rewarded by opening the door so that the dog can have a walk. Clicker trainers then save clicks and treats for the next new thing they want to train.
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