Thursday, April 19, 2007

Clicker Training 101

I thought that in my spare time I'd write a bit about clicker training. What it is, why I use it, and some useful tips and tricks to get started. Some of this will get long so I'll try to split it up. Each of these blog posts will be prefaced by "clicker--" so you'll know if it's a clicker training post. Or maybe at some point I'll actually organize them in a folder, but don't count on it.

The simplest explanation of what clicker training is, is that it uses a click--a noise--to mark a desired behavior. That behavior is then rewarded with a treat. For any reader new to the method, that's the one, real, basic tenet. The commandment written in stone.

Click = Treat

If you remember nothing else about this training, remember the above. You click the dog, the dog gets a treat. Every time. And dogs are pretty literal critters. Pretty darn soon, they understand that every time you click that clicker they've done something right and they get a reward.

Rewarded Behavior Is Repeated

Dogs are pretty much like us. If a particular behavior is rewarded, they want to repeat it. If a behavior is ignored while they're working for that reward, they tend not to repeat it. The click marks a behavior that the trainer wants repeated. In this, the clicker is incredibly precise.

Why is the clicker better than voice?
The clicker is better than voice for a couple of important reasons. The click is both faster than the voice and the click is unemotional and therefore unambiguous. Let's go into a bit of detail about that.

The clicker is faster than your voice. Studies have been done which show that the human body can twitch a finger/thumb much faster than it can say a word. In other words, it takes longer for the brain to go find a word, send it to the voice box, and for the mouth to express that word than it does for the nerve impulses to go to the finger for a click. And how many of you are like me? You'll look at your own sister Susan and say, "Jamie, Laura, Jenn, um, YOU!" we forget words all the time. On the agility course I'm likely to call a table a dogwalk and not remember my dog's name at all! Clicker is far easier. Just push a button. And being faster is better. The faster the clicker is, the more likely you are to catch a behavior at just the right moment and mark it. The more accurate you are at marking the behavior you want to keep, the faster the dog will learn and the more complex tasks you can teach.

The clicker is also totally unemotional. This is really, really important. The clicker is a marker. It is not praise and does not take the place of praise. But nor can praise take the place of the clicker. I hear many trainers say, "I just say the word "yes" as my marker." And that can work. Sort of. It will work but it's slower (see above) and it is not as unambiguous. See there's this weird thing. Dogs have developed over the past 15-100,000 years (depending on what scientist you talk to) to be exquisitely sensitive to our emotions. They are especially sensitive to our faces, our body posture, and our voices. They use those cues to "learn human." And they are masters at it. They know when we're mad just by our tone of voice and our face. And no matter how much you try, the "yes" you say to a dog when you are tired and have had an awful training session and are just trying to salvage something without punting Rover into the nearest wall is far, far different than the "yes" you say when the sky is blue, the grass is green, and Rover is doing everything perfectly with sparkle and verve the first time you ask. Your voice is different, your body posture is different.

The clicker overrides that. Dogs are very literal and so is the clicker. It says, "I don't care what my body posture says, you did that RIGHT and you get a TREAT.

Thus lies the awesome power of the click. And that's enough for this post!

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