I am a clicker trainer. All of my own dogs are clicker trained and many of the classes that we teach at my training school, AutumnGold are “clicker-centric”. Clicker training is not only a scientifically sound approach to teaching dogs new things, but is also a kind, enjoyable, and bond-strengthening method of training – something that benefits both dogs and their people.
For the uninitiated, clicker training is a relatively simple technique that involves pairing the click sound made by a small, handheld cricket with the delivery of a food treat. After several repetitions of this pairing (Click-Treat; hereafter CT), in which the click sound reliably predicts the treat, the sound comes to possess the same properties as the presentation of the treat itself – a pleasurable emotional response. Clicker training packs an enormously powerful positive punch for both the dog and the trainer because it allows the trainer to precisely target tiny bits of behavior at the exact moment they are occurring. The click sound becomes analogous to saying to your dog “That’s it!! That thing that you are doing right this instant is what will earn you the yummy treat that is coming shortly! You are SO very smart!”
A second advantage of clicker training, a benefit that it shares with all training that emphasizes positive reinforcement, is that it shifts a substantial proportion of training control to the dog. This empowerment leads to a dog who loves to learn new things and is eager to “find out what’s clickin’ in each training session“. (Seriously there is nothing not to love about clicker training).
BABY COOPER HEELS FOR CLICKS
So let’s deconstruct the click.
When I was teaching companion animal science at the University of IL, I spent a fair amount of time lecturing about two principle types of learning – Classical conditioning and Operant conditioning. Clicker training provides a great example of a training method that involves both forms of learning:
- Classical conditioning occurs when a subject responds to relationships between two or more stimuli. The basic elements of this type of learning are a meaningless stimulus (initially called a “neutral” stimulus) that elicits no response and a meaningful (unconditioned) stimulus that elicits a response without any prior conditioning. The consistent pairing of the two stimuli, with the neutral stimulus always preceding the unconditioned stimulus, results in a change in the meaning of the neutral stimulus. Because the neutral stimulus consistently precedes and thus predicts the unconditioned stimulus, it begins to elicit the same response that is elicited by the unconditioned stimulus (think Pavlov’s dogs: A ringing bell, and then food). Generally speaking, many classically conditioned behaviors involve emotional responses such as pleasure/joy or fear, with the dog having little or no voluntary control over his/her response.
- Operant learning (also called instrumental learning) occurs as a result of the consequences of a (usually voluntary) behavior. This terminology originates from the concept that we are continually “operating on” our environment, and subsequently alter our behaviors in response to their good or bad consequences. Like other subjects, dogs tend to repeat behaviors that have desirable consequences. We say that these behaviors are positively reinforced (+R).
- What’s the difference? Classical conditioning is concerned with establishing relationships between stimuli and functions as a primary way in which animals learn about their environment. Trainers think a lot about “predictors” in a dog’s world and often will manage a dog’s environment to reduce or eliminate stimuli that predict unpleasant experiences and try to increase stimuli that consistently predict pleasant experiences for the dog. Conversely, operant conditioning involves primarily response-consequence relationships in which a dog learns to volunteer a behavior in anticipation of pleasurable consequences (+R).
Classical: Click (neutral stimulus) consistently precedes and predicts Treat (unconditioned stimulus). After several repetitions, the Click takes on the properties of the treat and is now said to be a conditioned stimulus. Trainers typically refer to it as “conditioned reinforcer” because the CT is used as a +R.
- Operant: Dog offers a behavior (sit), which results in the presentation of CT (positive reinforcement). Dog says “Yum! Sitting results in a treat! I like treats. I will increase the frequency that I offer a sit!”
- Classical: This last one is really cool, because it provides additional evidence for why our dogs SO enjoy clicker training. The voice cue “Sit” is added to the training process when the dog is reliably offering sit for CT. The trainer then begins to only CT when the dog offers the behavior in response to the voice cue (and no other time that the dog sits). Over time, as the dog attains proficiency (offers sit reliably in response to the cue), the cue “Sit” becomes a classically conditioned stimulus because it reliably precedes and predicts an opportunity for CT to the dog (with the operant sit behavior thrown in the middle). This means that the cues that the trainer uses with trained behaviors become imbued with the same characteristics as the click sound; the voice cues themselves become something that the dog enjoys and looks forward to, because they are always paired with an opportunity to earn a CT.
As I said, What’s not to like? Happy Training!
Reference: Clicker training diagram adapted from Canine and Feline Behavior and Training: A Complete Guide to Understanding Our Two Best Friends, LP Case, page 105, Cengage, 2010.