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Introduction to Clicker Training

The use of marker signals, like clickers, to train animals has been in use for over 60 years so it’s hardly a new concept. However if you haven’t clicker trained an animal before, it’s brand new to you, so here’s how you can comfortable using a clicker to train your dog.

If you have ever seen the animal acts at places like Sea World and Marine Land, you have seen how effective this sort o training can be. Clicker training has its roots in the science of classical conditioning – think Pavlov’s Dogs. Because it’s based in science, you will find it a fast, effective and efficient method training. While dogs of different breeds can behave differently, no dog is immune to the principles of learning theory and it is using those principles, that we will train our dogs.

Clickers are not ‘magic’ – they are just simple tools. Their main advantage is that they are cheap, easy to carry and use, and they produce a unique sound that can be used as a marker signal. Owners of deaf dogs will often use a small flashlight as a marker signal and marine mammal trainers use whistles. All these markers perform the same task; they provide the animal being trained with information. In order to be an effective training tool, your maker signal needs to meet certain requirements.

Unique: Its unique signal sounds stands out from the everyday background sounds like human speech.

Consistent: It sounds the same no matter who is training the dog.

Immediate: It needs to pinpoint the exact behavior at the precise moment the dog does it. Mechanical markers are more precise than verbal ones when you want to pinpoint a behavior.

Charging the Clicker

By pairing the ‘click’ marker signal with a reward (small food treats), the dog learns that the sound predicts a treat. This process is called charging the clicker. You click and immediately give the dog a small treat. Repeat 20 times. At this stage we don’t care what your dog is doing; they just have to learn that the click predicts a treat. After one or two sessions your dog will learn to associate the click sound with a treat.

How Does the Clicker Help Me Train My Dog?

When your dog does something you like, you mark it with a click and give the dog a treat. Rewarded behaviors will be repeated so the dog will continue to do things that earned him a click in the past. The clicker communicates the following information:

• I like the behavior you just did
• You have earned a reward for that behavior
• That behavior is now over

For example:
The dog starts to go into a sit position. The dog hears the click as he is sitting and gets a treat. You can either repeat that cycle or move onto a new behavior. If you accidentally click, just feed the dog and start again.

Getting the Behavior to Happen

We use 3 primary methods to get desired behaviors.
• Luring
• Capture
• Shaping

Luring: Holding a food lure in your hand you motion the dog into a position such as sit or down. Luring techniques are useful when first teaching a behavior but they must be faded quickly in order for the dog to truly learn.

Capture: Good trainers are observant. By observing the desired behaviors as they naturally occur and click/treating them, they will occur more often. An example would be clicking as you notice your dog going into a down and then rewarding him.

Shaping: By shaping you would click and treat small portions of the desired final behavior. For example if you were shaping a sit you would click/treat any small movement starting with the dog’s head coming up and the butt heading towards the floor. Finally you get the complete sit behavior and click and treat for that.

Naming the Behavior

With new behaviors that the dog does not know well, we train the behavior first before we call it anything. Naming the behavior (putting the behavior on Cue) is the last piece of the puzzle. Dogs are not verbal and do not understand English! So be patient and get the behavior to happen reliably before giving it a name.

Training a Simple Behavior – “Touch”

Charge up your clicker and then hold your non-clicker hand with a flat palm facing your dog, holding your target hand close to their nose. As they touch their nose to your target hand, C/T. Using the concept of shaping, you may need to start by clicking and rewarding for just initial interest in the target hand, or just turning towards it. Be patient. Eventually your dog will move his nose to your open palm. Once they are freely touching the target hand, only click for actual touches. Repeat 10 times, moving your hand slightly to the left and right and gradually further away by taking a couple of steps. Keep repeating the variations.

Your dog is learning that it’s their actions that are causing you to C/T and the desired action is the nose to palm touch. Your dog has now learned their first clicker behavior and you have had a chance to practice your clicker timing and treat delivery. Once the dog can do several touches with you moving your target hand you can add the verbal cue “Touch” to the behavior. Only say the cur once as the dog is in the process of touching the target hand.

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