The Best of Everything—One Click at a Time|
Liz Harward, APDT Member & Dog Trainer
Tell him to live by yes and noyes 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 noisea 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 70s 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
itmy 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 dont 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 airthe
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, Dont Shoot The Dog, which outlines all the
rules of reinforcement theory. Karen had long taught the training game with a
group of studentsmaking 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
treatstrainers loves it! I now had a way of letting my dogs know when they were
rightevery time they were right, when they walked with a slack leadclick and
treat. When they greeted strangers at the door without jumping, click and treat. When they
sat when told to before getting in the carclick 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 neededjust 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 givenevery 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 happeningreward based training leads to creative dogs that love to learn.
I recently taught a young Lab to retrieve her owners 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 behaviorthe opportunity to continue working is this pups
favorite reward. The best part is she is retrieving on cueevery 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 owners 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 cant 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
workshopyup even chickens like learning behaviors for clicks and treats. This
workshop was taught by Marian and Bob Bailey, students of Skinners who have used
this technology since the 40s.
A clickera 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
peoplethose that understand and use reinforcement theory and/or clicker training and
those that dont. I make a point of hanging out with those that say yes
to everything good.