Clicker training is a way for trainers to quickly, really virtually instantaneously, provide your puppy or dog with the sound needed for them to understand that they are doing the correct thing. Clickers are small plastic and metal devices that are carried in the trainer's hand and, when pressed, make a "clicking" sound that the dog sees as a positive reinforcement cue.
The use of the clicker is based on what is known as "operant conditioning". This means that the puppy learns to complete a behavior that they would not normally do without positive reinforcement. In other words the repetition of the act paired with the reinforcement of the clicker and other rewards encourages the puppy to learn that to get the reward they must keep repeating the behavior when given the command. This is very similar to training a toddler when Mom or Dad gives a treat for putting away their toys or listening to instructions. With the infant Mom and Dad give verbal reminders and cues, the clicker simply replaces those verbal cues with an easy to recognize sound. The clicker is used to immediately let the dog know that they are on the right track, then the reinforcement of a treat or lots of praise and attention follows when they have completed the task. Puppies learn that by hearing the clicker and continuing on with the behavior a reward of praise, attention or a small treat will follow.
The clicker also acts to clarify for the puppy what he or she is doing right. For example, if you are trying to teach the puppy to sit, he or she will first come to you, maybe prance around, and then eventually sit. Once the puppy sits the human provides the reward. Without using the clicker the puppy may not really understand what the reward is for, is it for coming, for prancing or for sitting? Since the clicker is used immediately when the puppy starts to sit, he or she is cued that this is what the owner means when they say sit. The reward of a pat on the head or a bit of playtime or a treat reinforces the sit behavior, not all the other stuff, even in the puppies mind.
What is the difference?
One of the major differences in true clicker training is that the trainer does not introduce the command first; rather they reward the behavior and then name it. For example the clicker trainer would watch for the puppy to sit on its own, then click and reward without giving the verbal command. Once the puppy will automatically sit and knows this earns a click and a reward, the trainer pairs this with a verbal command. Once the puppy understands the verbal pairing with the click and reward and repeats it successfully the trainer stops providing a click and reward when the puppy does it on its own without being commanded. In other words, if the puppy is given the command to sit and does he or she earns a click and reward. If the puppy sits just because, there is no click or reward.
Clicker training focused on the positive aspects of rewarding a puppy for desired behaviors, so there is no consequence or punishment for a puppy that does not follow a cue. Rather the trainer begins the training over, assuming that the pairing between the behavior and the cue has not been completely established in the puppy's mind. This prevents puppies from being confused with what they are being rewarded for and what they are being punished for if a punishment is included. A great example of this is a puppy that runs over when called but then jumps up. In traditional training the puppy would be told "No jump" and then ignored. The problem is that the puppy may not understand where he or she went wrong, and may misunderstand that they are not being punished for coming; rather they are being punished for jumping. With clicker training the puppy would hear the click and understand they were on the right track with coming, then would also receive a click and reward if they sat down, but not if they jumped up.
Clickers are also not an ongoing event in all aspects of the puppy or dog's life. Once the puppy clearly understands the verbal cue and is responding all the time, there is no need to continue with the clicker as the relationship between the verbal command and the action is clearly defined for the puppy. The rewards also will drop off and become more random, plus the tasty treats will be replaced with praise and attention that is just as important to the puppy.
Clicker training is ideal for teaching more complicated series of behaviors. For example if you wish to teach your dog to compete in agility type events, a clicker can be used throughout the routine to immediately give feedback to the puppy or dog that he or she is completing the course correctly. Feedback with the clicker is immediate and much less distracting to the dog than having the owner verbalize "Good dog". The dog may have no idea why he or she is being praised, but the clicker clearly marks a behavior or event that the dog then understands it is to do.
There are many trainers in most cities and areas that specialize in clicker training. It is more than just adding a clicker to a training routine; it is a structured way to approach any new training opportunity for the dog. Once the dog understands that clicks earn treats and rewards, they will start to cue in on what they are doing when the click occurs. Some trainers indicate that puppies trained on clickers are more likely to remember verbal cues and commands even when they are not used frequently.
Talk to various trainers to find out how much they know about clicker training. Having a good background on the theory behind clicker training will let you know if they really understand the training technique and if you feel that they can help you work with your puppy using this training method.
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