There is a simple yet powerful principle behind clicker training: behaviours that lead to pleasant, enjoyable consequences are likely to be learned and repeated. This principle holds true for all animals, including people. Imagine you call your mother and she complains that you don't call her often enough. Or, you call your mother and she tells you how happy she is that you called and how much she appreciates it. Which scenario is more likely to make you want to call your mother?
It may seem like magic but clicker training is based on the science of operant conditioning. Clicker trained dogs perform behaviours in order to bring about desired consequences. In other words, they start to behave with purpose, not just by habit. And that opens up a whole new world for our dogs, and for us.
So how does it work? Clicker training is essentially about three things: observing a behaviour, marking (clicking) a behaviour, and reinforcing a behaviour. The click is an "event marker" that marks the precise moment the dog does what you want. A big advantage of using a clicker, instead of our voice, is that it is a clear way to communicate with our dogs. Dogs have to navigate their way through the sea of words we throw at them daily. No doubt you have had the experience of being in a foreign country where you did not speak the language. You know how difficult it is to understand what is being said to you or asked of you in that situation. Imagine being a dog with people speaking to you in a foreign language all day, every day.
Precise, instantaneous, and unambiguous, the clicker cuts through all the verbiage and facilitates your dog's understanding. The clicker signals two things to the dog from you: yes, that is the behaviour I want, and I will give you a reward - a reinforcer - for performing that behaviour. Generally, the reinforcer is food, very small size treats. But other things, such as toys, or the opportunity to do something the dog wants, are also reinforcing to a dog and can be used.
Let's look at an example, such as teaching your dog to close a door. You would plan the steps needed to close the door and then begin to shape your dog for each small step towards the final goal. Your dog looks at the door: click, treat. She moves toward the door: click, treat. She nudges the door: click, treat. She pushes the door: click, treat! Your dog is reinforced for each incremental step she takes and is encouraged to try things out without penalty. Unwanted actions are ignored, never punished. Your dog is set up for success.
Sometimes people are reluctant to use clicker training because they think that they will have to continue using a clicker throughout a dog's life. In fact, the clicker is a training tool used to teach a behaviour. Once a behaviour is learned, you can fade the use of the clicker.
In conventional dog training dogs are just told what to do. Clicker training turns that convention on its head and encourages our dogs not just to obey, but to learn, and not just to listen, but to think. And once you and your dog experience the joy and results that kind of learning brings, you will never look back!
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