Click and Treat: Clicker Training



Photograph by Michelle Blackie / Model: Ella adopted by Michelle from PitPals

Written by Claire Atkinson M.A. (Cantab.), Qualified Dog Behaviourist and Certified Tellington Touch® Practitioner

Our understanding of dog behaviour has advanced tremendously in recent years, mostly for good. There are, however, still some trainers out there who insist on “alpha owners”, electric collars and other aversives to teach a dog. Founded on unscientific precepts of wolf behaviour, long since discredited, it’s heavily biased on “being the boss” and punishing the dog that doesn’t respond.

Move with the times

Today, we understand dog behaviour a whole lot better, starting with the work of psychologist Skinner and his theory of operant conditioning (using positive and negative reinforcement to modify behaviour). Pavlov also gets a nod in the form of classical conditioning.

Thus, modern trainers and behaviourists use no force or punishment, and work with the concept that a behaviour that is rewarded is likely to be repeated. This is called positive reinforcement and has a number of components, of which the use of a clicker is one.

Keeping it simple, it works by asking the dog for a behaviour (cue), marking the behaviour when it happens (clicker or voice) and rewarding the behaviour (treats or whatever motivates your own dog.) That said, all this comes with a variation of nuances.

Clickety-click

The clicker is simply a hand tool that, when activated by pushing a button, makes a click. Some have different settings for the level of sound.

The principle behind it is that it makes the same sound every time it is used, and the dog quickly gets to understand that this sound signals the feeding of treats. It’s an alternative to using the voice to say “yes” as a marker. Karen Pryor developed the clicker to help provide consistency at the marking stage, and if you’re interested, have a google at her work.

On the other hand, some dogs are afraid of this sound, so it’s not for them. Some trainers prefer not to use a clicker at puppy school, where the emphasis tends to be socialisation with people and dogs, as well as some basic training.

To be effective, the clicker must be used correctly otherwise it just serves to confuse the dog. One can learn this skill – I once watched a trainer of note use a clicker to get a human to move to a pre-determined article in a room. Using it on humans while you learn is a good idea, because they can give you verbal feedback in addition to their response to the clicker.

Motivation with markers

Some people prefer to use their voice just because they can vary their marking through the tone and volume of their voice. And one does not always have a clicker on hand. Its value lies in the consistency of the marking and, if using one’s voice, one needs to be conscious of tone and volume – not always easy.  

The dog is only motivated to work with any marker (for the most part) for as long as it predicts treats. These should follow the click as soon as possible, requiring some dexterity with the treat bag. I usually have different treats with varied motivation: small pea-sized treats for “everyday use”, and high-value treats (cheese, chicken, viennas) for more advanced work or for teaching new behaviours.

It’s useful to observe your own body language as well as that of your dog. Dogs communicate mostly by using body language, so it makes sense to use this. Again, it takes a certain amount of skill, but is well worth the effort.

Learning and processing

When choosing a trainer, be sure that they work with positive reinforcement and do not use aversives. Also think about what results you would like to see. If you’re going to do competitive work, you should assure yourself that the trainer has experience in this field. If you just want your dog to understand the basic cues (or commands) and respond accordingly, a more general training is preferable. An interesting point here is that while you are at school you’ll probably learn a number of behaviours to work on.

Current research shows that dogs have a better retention if only one behaviour is taught, and then they’re allowed to have a nap to process the information. So, keep your training times short and focused.

Downtime is important too

Playing comes second as a way to give the dog “time out” to process what he has learned. Trainers will emphasise that the work done at home is the best, not relying on once-a-week school days.

Dogs require time to be just dogs doing dog stuff, and mental and physical stimulation. Interactive toys can be used to feed a portion of their food allowance and provides mental problem-solving. Get creative with things you have around the home rather than spending lots of money on purchasing a toy.

Another great side to modern research is a growing understanding regarding emotions and feelings. This, Skinner (and most scientists) allegedly said, it was pure fiction. Modern understanding of neuroscience is growing by the day, and yes, dogs do have feelings and emotions.

Do your research

If you want to be confused, google anything that is mentioned here. Rather do research into the trainer you are considering working with.

Ask to watch a class to see how they work, and how the clients and dogs respond. Check out qualifications – our profession is unregulated, and the guy who once trained a dog is not a dog trainer. Ask for recommendations from friends, from your vet. Ask what will happen to your dog if he gets it right, and if he gets it wrong.

If you’re having difficulty with helping your dog, consult a behaviourist. Or do one-on-one sessions with your trainer.