Updated: Feb 29, 2020
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Clicker training is strongly based in behavioral science and is known as a form of “operant conditioning.” The point of this post isn’t to go into the details of operant conditioning, but to show you how to use it. If you are interested in the theory behind clicker training, we recommend “Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us About All Animals” by Karen Pryor.
Simply put, clicker training is the use of a specific sound to let a dog know the exact moment it is doing something we want.
More specifically, we “click” to “mark” the behavior.
When we ask a dog to sit, we click the moment her rear touches the ground.
As soon as possible after the click, we give the dog a treat. That’s the reward. The click isn’t the reward, it just “marks” the behavior and allows us time to “bridge” to the actual reward (that’s why it’s often called a bridging signal).
The dog knows that when she does something we want (sit), she will hear a click and get a treat. That increases her desire to perform the task (the sit) and also releases lots of happy neurochemicals to help reinforce that desire.
You can do it with nearly anything you want to teach your dog. Clicker training is an opportunity to get creative with your training and your dog, and your dog will love it!
We have already taught her what a clicker is and what it means, so she’s ready to learn!
The best way we have found for humans to learn good timing for the clicker is to have a friend bounce a tennis ball. Practice marking each time the ball touches the ground. Then practice marking each time it either reaches its highest point or each time your friend catches it in her hand.
Next, practice giving her a treat after each click (you can just put it in her hand).
You are now a clicker trainer! Go have some fun with your puppy!
Conditioned emotional responses
When I was a kid, the sound of my mother’s car in the driveway at the end of the day would automatically put me in a state of happiness and positive anticipation and I would run to the door to wait for her to come in. That was a conditioned emotional response (CER).
We all have them. Dogs can have them, too, and we can intentionally create them to the advantage of both us and our dogs. We do that by associating good things[*] with situations or behaviors we want to encourage.
A great example of this is the toy box. We create a positive conditioned emotional response for our dog with the toy box to encourage the use of it when she feels a need to chew or play.
Another example is crate training. We use treats and bully sticks in the crate to create a positive conditioned emotional response to being in the crate—we want the dog to associate the crate with good things and want to be in it.
You can use positive reinforcement of any type (treats, praise, toys, etc) to create a conditioned emotional response. You can use a clicker to create a CER, but it’s not necessary.
Get creative, and help your dog be happy with being good!
[*]A CER can also be associated with negative emotions, but that’s not something we want to instill in our dogs, so our focus in this discussion is only on positive CERs, and when we refer to CERs we are referring to positive CERs unless explicitly stated otherwise.
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