Have you ever watched a wild animal show at theme or marine life parks and found it fascinating? Watching eager dolphins leap through hoops; happy parrots chortle away show tunes; and menacing lions, tigers, and bears play so gently with their handlers makes anyone’s mouth gape open in wonder and amazement!
You may wonder ‘how do they do it’? Certainly it is very different to train a dog than it is to train a dolphin…or is it? For one thing, you can put your dog on a leash, and physically direct him or her to sit, lie down, or come. Imagine trying to leash a killer whale to teach it a trick! And leashing a bear to a human…well, maybe that’s not such a good thought.
You surely can’t scold a wild animal for doing something incorrectly, and you must keep the exercises mentally stimulating and exciting, less you lose your eager candidate. With that in mind, the question arises: Can one train a dog the same way that they train a dolphin? That is where clicker training comes into play.
Clicker training is the process of training an animal using a friendly, conditioned reinforcer, which indicates to the animal which precise behavior was correct. It was originally used in training animals, such as dolphins and pigeons, for which traditional methods of obedience training aren’t useful. But clicker training is not a new phenomena. It is based on the century-old Pavlovian observation of stimulus-response.
In Pavlov’s famous experiment, he pooled a group of hungry dogs. Immediately before he fed a dog, he rang a bell. He quickly began to notice that the dogs would salivate upon hearing the bell ring, in anticipation of the forthcoming food. He repeated this process for a few weeks, each time ringing the bell and then giving food. Finally he took the food out of the equation. Pavlov noticed that whenever he rang the bell, the dogs would salivate whether or not food was presented. Even after the dogs had had eaten their fill, when the bell was rung, the dogs would salivate in anticipation. This salivation is termed, in the training world, as conditioned-response.
Fast forward to the modern world of animal training: Pavlov’s bell has been replaced by a clicker, a small box which, when pressed, makes a clicking sound. The clicker has become the conditioned or learned reinforcer. A clicker can be a very useful tool for telling your dog “That’s It! You did the right thing!” The clicker is used to catch or “mark” the exact behavior that we like. When an animal hears the clicking sound, it forms a mental picture of what he was doing at the exact time when it heard the click for future reference. More than likely, if your dog has that picture stored in his mind, he will attempt the behavior again and again. Therefore, with the clicker, it becomes simple to catch a certain behavior that your dog does naturally, and praise for it.
Imagine how useful this is when housetraining a puppy. Everytime puppy does his business outside, he is clicked and reinforced. Clicker training also makes it easy to teach even a stubborn dog the most difficult of tricks, and can even be used to help aggressive dogs become more comfortable with their environment and overcome some of their issues. What makes Clicker training so effective is the fact that you are not directing your dog to do something; rather, you are letting them think about and work out the correct solution to a problem. All you have to do is praise them for correct answers and keep them on the right track.
Clicker training is quickly bridging the communication gap between animals and humans. Any animal can be clicker trained including dogs, cats, birds, bunnies, horses, and even humans! Studies are finding that clicker training children is becoming more common in the classroom as well as in athletics. If you would like to learn more about clicker training and upcoming classes at Animal Friends, visit www.ThinkingOutsideTheCage.org.