“Clicker training” is the popular term for the training or teaching method based on what we know about how living organisms learn.
Research has shown that any creature—whether a dog, cat, dolphin, parrot, fish, horse, llama, or person—is more likely to learn and repeat actions that result in consequences it desires and enjoys. So clicker trainers provide consequences desired by their animal in exchange for actions or behaviors desired by their trainers.
We call these consequences “rewards” and the process is called “reinforcement.” Clicker training, therefore, is a positive-reinforcement-based system of training.
Why is Clicker Training Effective?
When an animal intentionally performs a behavior in order to bring about a desired consequence, as clicker trained animals do, they are learning in a way that researchers call “operant conditioning.”
Animals (and people) may also associate an action, event, place, person, or object with a consequence, whether pleasant or unpleasant. The more a certain event or environment is paired with a particular consequence, the stronger the association. This type of learning is called “classical conditioning” and represents reflexive or automatic behavior, rather than intentional behavior.
While clicker training initially employs classical conditioning, it quickly becomes operant conditioning as soon as the animal intentionally repeats an action in order to earn a reward. Training through operant conditioning results in purposeful behavior, while training through classical conditioning results in habitual behavior.
The difference between an animal that behaves with purpose, rather than by habit, is vast. Clicker trained or operantly conditioned animals try to learn new behaviors. They remember behaviors even years later because they were aware of them as they learned them, rather than acquiring them without awareness. They develop confidence because they have control over the consequences of their actions. They are enthusiastic because they expect those consequences to be pleasurable.
Why is a Clicker used?
The essential difference between clicker training and other reward-based training is that the animal is told exactly which behavior earned it a reward. This information is communicated with a distinct and unique sound, a click, which occurs at the same time as the desired behavior. The reward follows.
Without hearing a click during an action, an animal may not connect the reward with that action. Or, the animal may associate the reward with another, unwanted action. With the click, a trainer can precisely “mark” behavior so that the animal knows exactly what it was doing. That’s why clicker trainers call the click an “event marker.” The click also bridges or connects the behavior and its reward, and so is also called a “bridging signal.”
Why use a Click? Why not just a word?
A click is more powerful for training than a spoken word because it is not a sound heard by the animal in other circumstances. It means one thing only: a reward is coming because of what you did when you heard the click. It can be produced instantly and at the exact moment a behavior occurs. Even a very quick and subtle behavior, the twitch of an ear for example, can be clicked.
Unlike our voices, which can say the same word in different ways, and so express different emotions or meanings each time, the click sounds the same every time it is heard; its meaning never varies. Humans are highly verbal creatures, but our pets are not. It can be difficult for them to pick out a single word from the stream of meaningless words they hear us speak every day. The click’s meaning, however, is always clear. It is always directed at the animal, and it is always good news.
The clarity with which a click enables trainers to communicate with their animals has a profound effect on their relationships. Their level of interaction increases, and trainer and animal become more interesting and fun for each other.
How does Clicker Training work?
The trainer clicks at the moment the behavior occurs: the horse raises its hoof, the trainer clicks simultaneously. The dog sits, the trainer clicks. Clicking is like taking a picture of the behavior the trainer wishes to reinforce. After “taking the picture,” the trainer gives the animal something it likes, usually a small piece of food but sometimes play, petting, or other rewards.
Very soon (sometimes within two or three clicks), an animal will associate the sound of the click with something it likes: the reward. Since it wishes to repeat that pleasurable experience, it will repeat the action it was doing when it heard the click.
Any behavior can be trained with any animal following these three simple steps:
- Get the behavior.
- Mark the behavior.
- Reinforce the behavior.