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Clicker training for dogs is a training method which has become very popular in recent years within the UK and further a field. If you have ever been out walking with your dog and observed another dog handler or owner issuing commands to their dog and following up upon compliance with a clicking sound produced from a small box held in the hand, then you have already seen clicker training in action. So what is clicker training all about, and why would a dog react positively to something as seemingly innocuous as the sound of a click? Read on to find out more!
Clicker training, the process of using a small mechanised box which produces a 'click' sound when pressed, is a method of operant conditioning that is particularly effective in dogs. Operant conditioning means teaching a dog to differentiate between good and bad behaviours or what pleases or displeases their handler by observing the result which their behaviour elicits in the handler. Operant conditioning can be either punishment or reward based. For instance, punishment or negative reinforcement operant conditioning might involve the dog receiving a sharp 'no!' or a tap on the nose as the result of bad behaviour. Reward based or positive reinforcement operant conditioning would involve the dog being praised or rewarded for obedience or good behaviour, rather than punished for bad behaviour. Clicker training is derived of operant conditioning using positive reinforcement as the reward. So, why does a dog consider hearing a clicking noise from a small box as a reward? This is why clicker training is really clever. During the initial stages of training a dog by any means, it is normal to reward obedience and good behaviour with praise and possibly a treat. When training a dog to respond to clicker training, the praise or reward is delivered alongside of the 'click' activated by the handler. In time, the dog comes to associate the 'click' with the reward they receive, and sees the 'click' as positive reinforcement of their behaviour and indication that the dog has done well, which eventually becomes the reward in it's own right. Clicker training is just one method of positive reinforcement which can be used- the use of clapping, or for deaf dogs, a flashing light, can all be used in the same way to clicker training and will produce the same result in a dog trained to recognise the reward in the same way. Whether using a click, a clap, a light or any other method, the object used to reinforce the reward is known as the 'conditioned reinforcer' or the agent of reward for the acquired good behaviour.
It may take your dog some time to make the necessary associations in their minds with the clicker as a reward, and in training your dog to respond to clicker training effectively, a familiar reward must be used alongside of the clicker in the initial stages, such as giving a small treat or effusively praising the dog upon compliance with the given command. How long it takes for any given dog to make the necessary mental connections and moderate their behaviours or respond to clicker training varies greatly from dog to dog. The most intelligent dog breeds generally take to clicker training quickly and begin to respond positively within a couple of weeks- some dogs may take longer. As with any form of training, starting clicker training with puppies or younger dogs is often easier than beginning in later life, although there is no reason why adult dogs cannot learn to respond to clicker training as well. One of the benefits of clicker training is the scope that it provides to enable lifelong learning in the dog, as dogs which are used to clicker training can come to identify from the responses they receive what behaviours they will be rewarded for, and those which produce no definitive positive response. For a dog that is used to and attuned to clicker training and behaviour reinforcement, correct use of the clicker can often greatly reduce the length of time it takes to train new behaviours into a dog of any age.
As clicker training is a relatively new method of dog training and behaviour conditioning, there remains some controversy and criticism over the use of the clicker process to effectively train a dog. For instance, what happens if you do not have the clicker to hand? Will the dog still recognise another form of reward and will they forget their training or the relevance of the clicks if the clicker is not used? This argument can be counteracted by correct use of the clicker as a training aid only, and use of the clicker discontinued once the dog reliably performs the task which the clicker has directed them towards. For instance, a dog which jumps onto the sofa may be click rewarded for getting down when told. In time, the dog will learn from this not to jump onto the sofa at all, and so the clicker is no longer required for that circumstance. It is also often stated that a dog is not responding to the clicker in itself, but to the treats that are commonly given at the same time as the click once the dog has obeyed. It is important when using treats alongside of clicker training, that the use of the treats is phased out as the dog becomes responsive to the clicks, so that they associate the click in its own right as the reward rather than the associated treats.
Only use the clicker in a training environment and when actively training the dog. Train the dog using the clicker to perform one task at a time, as the dog may become confused as to what he is actually being rewarded for if faced with too much stimulus, and make the wrong association between the click and the required behaviour. Keep training fun, and if your dog is simply not getting the hang of what you are asking of him and becoming bored or frustrated, move on and try again another day so that your dog does not end up making negative associations with the clicker which can hinder training. Finally, remember that while most dogs will respond to clicker training, for some dogs it may just not be compatible with their thought processes and level of understanding. Give it a good go, but if it does not work out for you and your dog, remember that it is not the only training method out there and be prepared to move onto something else. Good luck!
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