Clicker Training Dogs

The past 10 years or so has seen a dramatic increase in a method of dog training called clicker training. "Clicker training" is actually jargon for the lesser-known scientific terminology, operant conditioning. While the concept certainly isn't new - it was developed under B.F. Skinner's tutelage as early as World War II - it seems to have swept the dog training world as a highly effective training method to achieve long-term effects.

Operant Conditioning
In operant conditioning, consequences are used to modify the frequency of behaviors. Generally speaking, animals will continue performing a behavior which results in a “positive” outcome, and discontinue behaviors which result in either no consequence or a “negative” outcome. In this article, "positive" and "negative" refer to the emotional connotation. In clicker training, trainers use positive reinforcement (the addition of a reinforcer) to get the dog to repeat desired behaviors as well as decrease undesired behaviors.

In order to get the dog repeating a behavior, she must know exactly which behavior earned the reinforcement. Through the use of a clicker, the trainer can “tell” the dog the instant a desired behavior occurs (this is called marking the behavior). This tool is used because of its sharp, quick sound – the click – which is much more precise than the trainer’s voice. It takes a lot longer to say “Good boy!” than it does to simply click. Once the dog understands the clicker signifies she’s done something good, the trainer can begin shaping behaviors.

Conditioning a Dog to the Clicker
The first step in beginning this training is conditioning the dog to the meaning of the clicker. To start, the trainer must find a motivator for the dog – something this specific dog greatly wants. The most popular form of reinforcement is food in the form of dog treats since all dogs, at some point, are food motivated. If your dog isn’t particularly interested in treats, there are many different positive reinforcers you can use. The important thing is to find what motivates your dog at that moment.

With the dog on leash or in a small space (in order to minimize distractions and the dog’s ability to leave), the trainer clicks the clicker, pauses, then “treats” the dog, regardless of what he's doing. This step is repeated several times in a row in order to form the association between the clicker and the positive reinforcement. At this point, the dog is simply learning that after he hears a click, he will receive a reward.

Getting Started Clicker Training
Once the association between clicker and positive reinforcement is made, you can get started with the actual training. At this point, the dog knows that she needs to hear a click in order to receive the reinforcement. Since she's still very new at this, start with something simple so she can succeed. You can begin with waiting until the dog looks away, and when she turns back and makes eye contact (as she eventually will), click, pause and then treat her. Repeat this step - dog looks away; dog makes eye contact, CLICK, pause, treat - until the dog is consistently looking at you. This teaches eye contact and attention but also ensures the dog learns the ultimate goal is NOT the treat; rather, working for the click itself.

When the dog is consistently making eye contact, start lengthening the amount of time he needs to hold your gaze before clicking. Count to 2 seconds, the next time wait 5 seconds, etc. This teaches the dog he needs to HOLD eye contact. Whatever you've read or heard on the Dog Whisperer about humans needing to "win the staring contest" doesn't apply here. Wouldn't you rather have a dog eagerly looking into your eyes for the next cue, rather than a dog who is afraid to hold eye contact?

Leave Your Dog Wanting More Training
For every training session, it’s best to leave the dog wanting more, rather than working with the dog until she gets bored with the training. In the beginning, 5-minute sessions are best. Work with the dog, then give a “release” word and take a break to pet or scratch the dog. When you’re ready to start back in, merely stand still and wait until the dog makes eye contact again, or you can call the dog’s name to get her attention. When you're done with the training session, make sure to end on a positive note.

Remember, this is a game and should be treated as such – it’s fun but you and your dog are learning at the same time!


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