Clicker Training : Find Out What It’s All About.

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What is clicker training?  How does it work, and how do we use it for training dogs? Do clickers work at a distance, and how can we use clickers to control disobedient dogs?

In this article I’m going to answer your clicker training questions and concerns.

I’ll be looking at how clickers have influenced modern dog training methods and how they can help you to enjoy your dog.

If there is anything you don’t understand, just drop your question into the comments box below

Click Click Party Trick!

Not so very long ago, many of us regarded clicker training rather skeptically.

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.

Questions about clicker training

However, you are bound to have some 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 Labrador.

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.

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.

Why clicker training is 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-training-labradorClicker 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, magical concepts.

Clicker training is derived from the scientific study of animal behaviour.

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

  1. Dogs  learn to change their behaviour in response to the consequences of their actions
  2. 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.

Meanwhile, here are some of the facts you need to know.

Dogs learn through consequences

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

Does clicker training 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.

Clicker training resources and links

If you are interested in learning about Clicker Training, and want to give it a try with your dog, why not check out the articles below:

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.

More help and information

Happy Puppy jacket imageIf you enjoy Pippa’s articles, you will love her new book: The Happy Puppy Handbook published in 2014.

Now available in most countries, the handbook is already a bestseller in the UK.

You can buy from Amazon using the links below. If you do, the labrador site will receive a small commission which is greatly appreciated and won’t affect the cost to you!

 

This article has been  revised and updated for 2014.

 
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Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of several books on dogs. She is the founder of the Labrador Site and a regular contributor. She is passionate about helping people enjoy their Labradors and lives in Hampshire with her husband and four dogs.

7 COMMENTS

  1. My 4 month old lab seems bored. I have lots of toys for him and take h on walks but when he’s awake it seems he can’t entertain himself for too long. I don’t know how to get things done around the house because I am always keeping him busy. Any suggestions?

  2. help please!!! my girlfriend has an about 7 and half month old gold lab. most beautiful dog ever, with a crazy personality. first he is real piece of work so this list may be long any time he is around.people he jumps on them. when we put him outside, for most of the time he jumps ont he screen door very obnoxious. anytime we put him in his crate and its not relative to being late and his bed time. there is spurts when he is outside and doesnt jump on the screen door. or bark im the crate. or jump on people but these little moments are not enough and he really is only enjoyable when we let him free lance on hikes amd even then if he gets near us for to long he starts jumping on us. We just really need help fast

  3. Where did you get the photo of the dog in this article? I swear I have the twin version at home…had to do a triple-take when I saw the photo!

  4. Hi,

    We have a beautiful 2 and a half year old chocolate Lab called Lenny. He has been the model dog up until the last few month when he started to become agressive towards other dogs, especially young puppies or small dogs. He is not desexed as we planned to breed him, however we have him booked to be desexed on the advice of our vet and other friends in the guide dog industry, in the hope that this reduces the amount of possible hormonal behaviour. Is it really hormones? is it bad training? Other than the occasions that he has done this, he is the most beautifully natured dog and very affectionate towards everyone and most dogs and at most times very obidient. Any advice would be great as it breaks our heart to see people start to have a negative view of him at the park when we and most people know how weird it is that he acts like that?

    Thanks a lot

    Michael

    • Hi Michael, it is unlikely to be ‘bad training’ making your dog aggressive. Aggression can be complex and is best investigated by an experienced behaviourist with ‘hands on’ knowledge of the dog. Castrating can sometimes help with aggression towards other dogs and as you would not want to breed from him now, getting him castrated is probably a sensible next move. I hope it helps resolve your problem.
      Pippa

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