Click, Treat, Huh?
by Barbara DeGroodt
You may have heard someone clicking at their dog and wondered “What is this new thing?” Well, it’s really not new, as a matter of fact; it’s been around for several decades. I first met Karen Pryor and Gary Wilkes in the late 80’s, when they were giving their first seminars on the “new” method of training. We were informed that the click was a “marker” used with operant conditioning. (To learn more on operant conditioning, you can check Wikipedia, which has a helpful explanation.)
A marker is just that; it marks a period of time or a behavior, very much like someone saying “yes” or “good” to a behavior. However, using a clicker has several advantages over using your voice. As humans, our main means of communication is verbal. For many people, putting too much emotion in a verbal reinforcer can be a common error in training. Using a clicker removes emotion but delivers clear and precise information to the dog that what he has just done is desirable.
To begin, you “load” the clicker by clicking and giving a treat. Don’t worry about any behaviors at the beginning. Once the click means a treat, you begin to observe behaviors you want, like sitting. When your dog sits, you click and give a treat. Before long you will see your dog sitting more and more. You can then identify that behavior with the command “sit.” You won’t need to click any longer for “sit,” once the dog knows the word. Then you can move on to the next behavior. You can wait for a desired behavior and reinforce it with a click, or you can lure the animal into position and then click; either is acceptable. I use clickers with training behaviors that are hard to elicit, such as or shaking water from their coats or sneezing. (You can lure these but it’s a bit more difficult.)
At a training camp I attended, we were asked to teach a chicken to do a trick. The clicker was paired with cracked corn. We taught our chicken to “walk the plank” on a moving ship. It was great fun! My instructor also grouped me with three Japanese students who spoke very little English; I used the clicker to communicate with them what I wanted them to do. We had a blast and the best trick of all the teams!
The biggest problem with many pet guardians is timing. One needs to be very quick with the click to let the dog know that the behavior just completed was correct. That is--the last thing they did, before getting the click/treat, was correct. If you are not ready with the clicker and fumble and are late with the click, you may end up clicking for an undesired behavior. If you miss the opportunity to click, you should let it go and wait for the next one. Be ready, click, and reinforce with a treat; this way, you will be teaching your dog what it is you want.
Some dogs may be shy, and the click is too loud for them. For shy dogs you can try putting the clicker in your pocket to soften the sound.
Dogs that work very fast do well with clickers. It seems to slow them down because they concentrate on working for the click. I had a little Terrier/Poodle mix who worked so fast, it was hard to get in a praise word before he moved to the next behavior. The clicker worked wonders for him; he slowed down his behaviors and waited to see if what he had done would get him a reward.
As with every training tool, the clicker is just that…a tool, and each tool should be tried on an individual basis. I currently have one client whose dog tried to bite her when she used the clicker. For this dog, we moved to a verbal marker and that has worked well.
A good trainer will have a toolbox full of methods and will shift to another method that may be more appropriate for your pet. Treats don’t work on all dogs, but the majority of dogs will work for a goodie; for some it’s a toy, etc. Just as with people, one method does not always work for everyone.
Try a clicker and you might see it open many doors for you and your pet. If you need more assistance using it, contact a trainer who uses clickers.
Barbara De Groodt is the owner of From the Heart Animal Behavior Counseling and Dog Training in Salinas, CA and has been an animal behavior counselor for over 30 years. Barbara was one of the original founders of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, APDT (under the guidance of Dr. Ian Dunbar); she’s a professional member of International Association Canine Professionals and several behavior organizations, as well as a certified animal trainer. She is a regular speaker at Western Career College’s Animal Health department and lectures around the world to veterinary groups, law enforcement agencies, trainers and pet owners. From the Heart is located in Salinas, CA. Barb De Groodt can be contacted at (831) 783-0818. www.fromtheheart.info.