Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Little About Clicker Training

When I am teaching dogs I often use what is referred to as clicker training. The benefits of clicker training your dog are immense and include accelerated learning, a willingness to perform tasks with speed and enthusiasm, and very precise communication between you and your dog. It is also one of the most humane forms of dog training and has no need for the use of force or punishments.

Clicker training uses a small device that when pressed makes a very distinct “click-click” noise. This noise is combined consistently with a food reward to teach the dog that the sound of the clicker means that a reward is coming. The process is often referred to as “charging the clicker”. It can then be used as an event marker to pinpoint the exact moment your dog does something you want to reinforce. Using the clicker is better than using your voice to mark correct behavior because it is faster, more distinct, and always neutral. Once your dog understands the meaning of the clicker, it can be used to teach a wide array of behaviors, from simple things like “sit” or “down”, to more complex behaviors like running an agility course or retrieving a dumbbell.

When teaching a new behavior clicker trainers wait for the dog to offer a behavior that can be reinforced. They do not force the dog into position or correct the dog for doing something different. Clicker trainers want their dogs to think and problem solve to figure out what will get them a click and a treat. The “cue” for a behavior (often called a “command” in traditional training) is not added until the dog is performing the behavior reliably. This avoids confusion on the dog’s part. Once the cue is added then the dog is only rewarded for doing the behavior when the trainer gives the cue. When training a behavior that a dog will not offer on its own trainers can use a process called shaping. Shaping involves clicking for small steps towards the finished behavior. For example to teach a dog to spin in a circle, you may start with clicking just a head turn, then a ¼ turn, then ½ turn, and so on until you eventually shape a full circle turn. This is an extremely useful skill for teaching complex behaviors.

When it comes to getting rid of unwanted behaviors clicker trainers have two very useful techniques, extinction and training an alternate behavior. Extinction works on the idea that behaviors that are not reinforced are less likely to be repeated in the future. Say you want your dog to stop begging from the table. If you completely stop feeding your dog from the table, then eventually the dog will realize that begging does not work, and will stop doing it. Be aware that this method can backfire, though. If you stop feeding your dog from the table almost all the time, but every so often give them a bit of food, then the dog will learn that persistent begging will eventually pay off. The other technique you can use is to teach a different behavior for the dog to do instead. This behavior must be incompatible with the behavior that you want to get rid of. For instance, your dog cannot beg at the table if he is lying quietly on a mat at the other end of the room.

Clicker training is a very powerful and effective training method. The best way to learn is to practice it yourself. So grab a clicker and some treats and get ready to have a ton of fun training your dog!

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