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For a time the ‘clicker’ was considered little more than a toy for indulgent and soppy lap dog owners, not something a Labrador owner might benefit from.
All that has now changed, and the clicker is regarded as a serious tool by almost all professional and keen dog trainers.
The level of interest in clicker training is continuing to grow and if you haven’t given it a try yet, you will probably be tempted to consider having a go at some point.
However, you are bound to have some questions
Frequently asked questions
- Does clicker training really work with a large and determined Labrador?
- Will it be of any use when your dog is a hundred yards away?
- And how can a clicker help you when your dog is being naughty?
The aim of this article is to answer any questions you may have about this interesting technique, and give you an overview of how it works, and how it can help you train your dog.
What is clicker training?
Clicker training is characterised by the use of an audible click, which marks and defines even quite tiny changes in a dog’s behaviour.
It is essentially a communication device. It lets your Labrador know exactly what he did right, and most importantly it does so at the exact moment that the dog does so. The generic term for this kind of device is event marker.
The clicker is not the only event marker but it is a very inexpensive and convenient one.
The clicking sound is produced by pressing a flexible metal plate which is housed in a tiny plastic box. The clicker is very light, fits neatly in the palm of one hand, and is operated by a thumb.
A faster way to learn
The clicker trained dog is able to absorb and use the information provided by the click to control the delivery of rewards.
This is because the handler always offers a reward immediately after activating each click.
Because the dog is able to manipulate the flow of rewards, he quickly learns which behaviours make the rewards flow, and which do not.
And because clicker training avoids aversives of any kind, the dog does not have to worry about getting it wrong. This frees him up to keep trying. In this way, clicker training speeds up learning.
Where does clicker training come from?
Before we delve any further into clicker training, it is important to ascertain a few facts about how dogs learn, and about how a dog’s behaviour can be modified or manipulated by his owner.
Clicker trainers rely not on mystical ‘bonding’ processes or secret ‘arts’.
They do not depend on ‘whispering’, ‘listening’, ‘being the boss’ or any of the other vague, mythical, and magical concepts that rise and fall in favour in doggy circles.
Clicker training is derived from the scientific study of animal behaviour and clicker trainers depend solely on science for their skills.
The emergence of science as a basis for dog training
A lot of research has been carried out over the last hundred or so years, into how animals learn.
Although the name ‘Learning Theory’ has been coined for the outcome of all this research, it is in fact far more than just a theory in the common sense of the word.
It is actually a tested and proven set of rules that we can rely on when training our dogs.
Whilst Learning theory has been around for a long time, it is only in the last three decades or so that we have seen real progress in the application of this knowledge to dog training.
How dog training works
In a nutshell, learning theory tells us that
- Dogs learn to change their behaviour in response to the consequences of their actions
- We can control dogs by controlling the consequences of their actions
These simple facts may seem laughably obvious, but they are the key to all successful animal training.
If you would like to read more about how dogs learn, you can download my e-book How to win at dog training. It has the information you need in order to be able to clicker train your Labrador, and much more.
Meanwhile, here are some of the facts you need to know.
Some more simple facts!
When an animal has completed an action, no matter what that action may be there are only three possible consequences
- Things get better for him
- Things get worse for him
- Things stay the same for him
Everything that happens to your Labrador when he has just completed a behaviour will fall into one of those three categories. This will happen whether or not a human being is present or involved.
The reason that this is important, and that we need to be aware of these three categories, is because they are responsible for changing the way that your dog will behave in the future.
So how do these three consequences change behaviour?
If things ‘get better’ for a dog, he will in the future, repeat whatever he was doing just before things got better.
Think of it this way. This pattern of behaviour makes logical sense for an animal in the wild.
Living in a world that is subject to frequent environmental changes, and with an infinite variety of options to choose from each day, an animal has to be able to take actions which will increase his chances of survival.
And those actions most likely to help him survive are actions which had a good outcome last time!
A question of survival
If eating a rabbit tastes nice and fills his tummy, a dog will eat a rabbit again. If yelling for his ‘mum’ results in her rushing to feed or comfort him, a puppy will yell for his mum again.
In exactly the same way and for the same reasons, if things ‘get worse’ for a dog, he will in the future be less likely to repeat whatever he was doing just before this happened.
If he bites on a bee and gets stung, he is less likely to bite on a bee again, this helps him in the future to avoid actions which jeopardise his chances of survival.
If things stay the same for the dog, his chances of survival or even of gaining a simple pleasure, are not improved and he will also therefore be less likely to repeat the behaviour that preceded this absence of any consequence.
If a dog steps into a circle drawn on the ground and nothing happens to him whilst he is standing in that circle, he is unlikely to bother standing there again.
These patterns of behaviour exist because they can be crucial to an animal’s survival. However, they also influence behaviour that is not crucial for survival. They cannot be switched off. This is great news for dog trainers as it means we always have the power to change a dog’s behaviour.
The power of consequences
This ‘game of consequences’ is played constantly throughout an animal’s lifetime. The association between ‘consequences’ and ‘future behaviour’ is common throughout the animal kingdom, including in human beings.
It’s power has been demonstrated over and over again in laboratories and in the field. Understanding the role of consequences in animal training is the first step to becoming a good trainer, controlling those consequences is the second step.
Dog trainers can choose to control consequences through rewards and punishment. When a dog carries out an action the trainer approves of, the trainer can provide a reward. Thus making the dog more likely to repeat the desired action.
When a dog carries out an action the trainer does not approve of he may be punished. Thus making the dog less likely to repeat the undesirable behaviour in the future.
But what does all this have to do with clicker training?
What is different about clicker trainers?
All dog trainers rely on consequences to modify their dogs’ behaviour. Clicker training is no different in that respect.
But the philosophy of clicker training includes an active choice to avoid punishment. And it does so for a number of reasons, aside from ethical considerations and emotional concerns.
We know that punishment (the unpleasant consequence) reduces bad behaviour. But we also know that punishment has some downsides that clicker trainers want to avoid (check out the link for more information).
We know too, that dogs that are not punished at all, learn faster and are less aggressive than dogs trained using intimidation or force. You can read up on the studies that have led to these conclusions here
So how do clicker trainers achieve a reduction in undesirable behaviour if they cannot correct the dog?
Reducing bad behaviour through clicker training
Remember that ‘if nothing changes for the dog his chances of survival are not improved and he will be less likely to repeat this behaviour in the future’ ?
That was the third of our three consequences.
It is a consequence that many dog trainers make little use of, but clicker trainers use this consequence a great deal.
Making sure that a dog cannot get at any rewards after bad behaviour is an important strategy for clicker trainers, and a winning strategy for dog trainers of any kind. Bad habits cannot develop, if bad behaviours are worthless to the dog.
Another important strategy adopted by clicker trainers is the way that they focus on what they want the dog to do, rather than what they want him to stop doing.
Focus on do rather than don’t
For example, instead of trying to stop a dog from jumping on visitors, the clicker trainer will teach the dog to keep all four feet on the floor when visitors arrive.
Instead of punishing a dog for whining, the clicker trainer will reward him for being quiet. And because the clicker is so precise, we can ‘mark’ tiny snippets of good behaviour, like a pause in whining, or a momentary break in jumping.
These small snippets of good behaviour can then easily be lengthened and developed into longer ones. You can read more about this strategy here: How can I stop my dog
Mind the gap!
Almost everyone is now aware of the importance of timing in dog training. We know that the consequences of an animal’s actions lose their power to influence future behaviour as soon as we create a gap between the action and the consequence that follows it.
The negative effect of any gap between an action and its consequence is the bane of the animal trainer’s life. Especially when training animals to carry out actions where they cannot easily be reached to reward them the instant they ‘get it right’.
The clicker solves this problem very neatly.
By following every ‘click’ of the clicker with a reward, the click itself takes on the power of a good consequence. So when the dog hears the ‘click’ things just got better for him.
This means he is more likely to repeat the action he carried out immediately before he heard the click.
Does it work with big dogs?
The power of clicker training is perhaps most valuable with large and boisterous dogs. This is partly because of the way in which dogs play and learn.
If you watch dogs playing, you’ll see a great deal of pushing and barging. Dogs recognise these behaviours as a part of play. Humans are very different. If we push someone away that is a serious signal that we want the person to ‘stop’. The game is over.
When a big dog jumps up at you and you push him away, he reads your behaviour as encouraging him to play with you. The most likely outcome of pushing him is that he will jump up at you again and push you back. He might also add a few ‘nips’ to make the game more fun.
Physically pushing or pulling a big dog is a pointless and even dangerous exercise and does absolutely nothing to teach the dog how to behave.
Clicker training is therefore ideally suited to large, strong dogs like the Labrador Retriever
But does it work at a distance?
But how is your dog supposed to hear the clicker when he is a hundred yards away, or noisily playing with another dog? Surely the clicker is not much use outdoors?
There are two factors here
- The volume of the clicker
- The role of the clicker
The clicker is actually audible to a dog at some distance. And we can and do use clickers with good effect outdoors.
However the role of the clicker is to mark events, not to signal the dog to take action. And the purpose of the clicker is to establish behaviours and it is mostly used in the early stages of training.
Much of what we do in later training does not require the use of a clicker at all. For example, once you have taught your dog to recall, you won’t need to click each time he returns to your whistle, just give him his reward when he reaches you.
Clicker training strategies
So we now know that clicker training is not just a party trick. The clicker is a useful dog training tool and one that every dog owner should possess and understand.
Clicker training embraces not only the techniques involved in using the clicker, but the principles and practice of effective modern science based dog training.
It is a whole package or approach to dog training that focuses on teaching a dog without force, without the use of punishment, even very mild punishment. And without the use of intimation or any kind of ‘domination’ or bossiness.
It is ideal for using on Labradors or other large dogs and has been thoroughly tested and proven by professional and amateur dog trainers worldwide.
No more stress!
One of the great benefits of learning to clicker train is that the application of these strategies (used by clicker trainers) is beneficial to all dog sports and activities, and all training styles.
Clicker training also brings other benefits, not least of which is the enjoyment experienced by both dog and trainers due to the absence of ‘stress’ or ‘pressure’ on the dog in the form of corrections and disapproval.
It is a wonderful way to start training a puppy or to build up the confidence of a nervous dog.
Clicker training needn’t be complex and nerdy. There is definitely an assured place for it in the future of dog training.
For more information
If you would like to learn more about how to train your dog using modern and positive training techniques, you’ll enjoy Pippa’s latest book The Happy Puppy Handbook – it’s a definitive guide to early puppy care and training.
If you would like to know more about clicker training, or other dog training techniques, why not drop your question into the comments box below, or pop into our forums for a chat.
Originally published in October 2011, clicker training for labradors has been completely overhauled and updated.