Operant conditioning is a scientific term that describes the way animals learn from the consequences of certain behaviors. Positive reinforcement is a type of operant conditioning often used in dog training.
Dog clicker training, a common form of positive reinforcement, is a simple and effective training method. The clicker is a metal strip inside a small plastic box that makes a distinct clicking sound when pressed. The click is much faster and more distinct than saying “good dog” and much more effective than using treats alone. To teach a dog the meaning of the click, a treat is given immediately after clicking. Once the dog learns the positive effects of the clicking sound, the clicker itself acts as a conditioned reinforcer.
Clicker training is not meant to completely replace the use of treats. The sound of the click instantly tells the dog that what he has done will earn him a reward. To emphasize this, clicks should frequently be followed by treats. Otherwise, the clicker will lose its effectiveness. “While some clicker trainers may not give a reward every time they click, pretty much all clicker trainers continue to follow the click with a reward,” says Alyssa. “It’s very important to use strong rewards a lot during initial training stages, and treats are often the strongest reward for a dog.”
Here’s how to you can easily train your dog to respond to the clicker before moving on to basic and advanced training. The following steps are often referred to as “loading” the clicker.
- Begin with your dog in a quiet area.
- Have a handful of your dog’s favorite treats ready. Ideally, this should be done when your dog is hungry.
- Press the clicker and immediately give your dog a treat. Repeat 5-10 times.
- You can test your success by clicking when your dog is not paying attention to you. If your dog responds to the click by suddenly looking at you, then looking for a treat, you are ready to move on.
- Next, begin teaching your dog basic commands. At the exact moment your dog performs the desired action, press the clicker. Follow with a treat and praise.
One of the best things about the clicker is the accuracy. “It’s like taking a photo of the exact behavior you’re rewarding”, Alyssa explains. The dog associates his action with the click and, subsequently, the reward. Not only does he better understand what he is doing, this also makes him more likely to repeat the action when asked in the future.
Clicker training can also be very effective for advanced training. “You simply click for small steps toward the behavior and work the dog toward the final, completed behavior,” says Alyssa. “This allows you to be totally hands-off (except for delivering the reward, of course). You don’t need to manipulate the dog into position, which can often slow the process.”
Overall, the clicker is a very valuable tool in the training process and should be an essential part of your pet supplies. When creating an obedience and training program for your dog, consider using the clicker and see for yourself how well the method works.