The Best of Everything—One Click at a Time
By Liz Harward, APDT Member & Dog Trainerclicker

“Tell him to live by yes and no—yes to everything good, no to everything bad.” This quote from William James sums up my new relationship with a gadget called a clicker. Yes, I have a relationship and a joyful one with a little low tech plastic box that makes a noise—a “click” like you might make if you clucked your tongue really loudly or quickly snapped a towel.

I am a dog trainer, and like many who learned the craft in the 70’s was taught to jerk a leash and snap a choke chain to get my dog to avoid pulling on the leash, to sit or to lay down. Just about all my training was about punishing non-compliance. I was good at it—my dogs were very well behaved, but not too happy about all that pulling on the collar. In fact they often avoided me when it was time for training.

Animal trainers that train dolphins and whales don’t have choke chains or even the opportunity to use punishment. I was always fascinated to see those animals doing so many behaviors so quickly and accurately. How was it done with out ever touching the animal? Marine mammal trainers found out long ago that a whistle could mark the moment that the animal jumped a certain height or direction. It was tough rewarding an animal with a fish (a common reward for a dolphin) when the animal was 16 feet high in the air—the whistle could bridge or mark the exact moment when the behavior occurred that would be rewarded soon with a juicy mackerel. The delivery of the food could be delayed as long as the bridging stimulus or whistle was blasted the instant the right behavior occurred. Following the rules of operant conditioning a trainer can teach any behavior that any animal is physically capable of exhibiting. Enter Karen Pryor who in 1992 bridged the knowledge gap between marine mammal training and dog trainers.

Karen Pryor, author and former marine mammal trainer began teaching a seminar to dog trainers based on her book, “Don’t Shoot The Dog”, which outlines all the rules of reinforcement theory. Karen had long taught the “training game” with a group of students—making one student “the animal” and another “the trainer” to teach basic shaping of behavior. But in one of the very first DSTD seminars a toy tin cricket was used to mark a dog offering the behavior of sitting in front of its owner. The noise of the clicker was paired with a treat and the new art of clicker training was born.

So what is so special about a noise that is paired with a treat? The clicker unlike most words is a very distinct sound to an animal that after being paired with a food or toy reward becomes reinforcing all by itself. Dogs like it and work hard to earn clicks and treats—trainers loves it! I now had a way of letting my dogs know when they were right—every time they were right, when they walked with a slack lead—click and treat. When they greeted strangers at the door without jumping, click and treat. When they sat when told to before getting in the car—click and treat. I liked this training and so did my dogs!

What is so interesting to me is that once I realized that any behavior that is reinforced gets repeated the notion of having to punish behavior began to disappear from my thinking. Clicker trainers shape behaviors first, later adding the cue or word that will produce that behavior. If a dog chooses to ignore a cue it really means that true stimulus control has not yet been taught to the dog for that cue. No punishment needed—just go back get the behavior and click and treat for the dog recognizing the cue. The dog soon learns to offer the behavior when the cue is given—every time. Traditional dog trainers give a command (which often implies “do this or else”) and then punish or correct non-compliance. The dog learns to avoid the punishment but often at a cost of enjoying the activity or the person that applies the aversive. Punishment based training methods lead to avoidance, fear often even frustration and aggression. Clicker trainers have found the opposite happening—reward based training leads to creative dogs that love to learn.

I recently taught a young Lab to retrieve her owner’s mail, not much of a trick for a retriever but this was done without ever touching the dog, we shaped the whole behavior start to finish with the clicker and treats. This dog in training to be a service dog for her owner who has severe arthritis, is now picking up anything her owner drops, and the dog is easily generalizing to other items besides the mail. She no longer needs a click and treat for this behavior—the opportunity to continue working is this pup’s favorite reward. The best part is she is retrieving on cue—every time without any force, ear pinch or any other aversive commonly used by traditional trainers to teach the retrieve. When this 9-month-old Lab picked up a dropped credit card and delivered it to her owner’s lap, I knew we had the behavior in place.

The difference in my own dogs has been amazing to watch. My Labs more joyful than ever if that is possible, compete for my attention and can’t wait to start training. We work in short flash sessions and they learn more quickly and have more fun without the former threat of punishment. This method works with all breeds of dogs and all species of animals. The most fun I have had since summer camp was attending a chicken training workshop—yup even chickens like learning behaviors for clicks and treats. This workshop was taught by Marian and Bob Bailey, students of Skinner’s who have used this technology since the 40’s.

A clicker—a small plastic gizmo has changed my life and my whole way of thinking. Using this marker signal to communicate with my canine friends is as reinforcing for me as it is for the dogs. I now seem to divide the world into two distinct groups of people—those that understand and use reinforcement theory and/or clicker training and those that don’t. I make a point of hanging out with those that say “yes” to everything good.