Tuesday, April 1, 2008

An Introduction to Clicker Training

A clicker is a small plastic device which emits a loud clicking sound when the metal tongue inside it is pressed. It is used as part of the process of training dogs (or cats) and treating their behaviour problems.

Before using the clicker as part of training it must be introduced so that the animal understands what the noise means. The animal is trained to associate the sound of the click with being given a reward (usually food). This uses the same principle of conditioning that Pavlov used to train dogs to salivate when they heard a bell.Once this association has been made the click can be used to indicate to the dog the exact bit of behaviour that we want them to do again.

How is this different from traditional methods?

Dogs and cats are best at understanding reward when it comes within just two seconds of their doing something. Beyond this time and learning is poor or non-existent. The clicker can be used to indicate precisely what is being rewarded, but the reward does not need to be given immediately after the click. There can be a delay of up to a few seconds.

This enables us to train at a distance and to choose a very precise moment to reward.
Clicker training does not depend upon the animal learning a command word before it learns the action. Clicker training can be used to teach quite complicated behaviour that would otherwise be very difficult to achieve.

How to start

Some dogs or cats find the noise of the clicker too loud and alarming so the first step is to introduce it quietly.

• Get a pot containing some small pieces of your pet’s favourite food treats and get the clicker.

• Muffle the clicker at first by sitting on the hand that is holding the clicker. Make a click and watch your pet’s reaction. If he or she looks interested but relaxed, then give a food reward.

• If your pet looks frightened or wants to get away, then you should contact the person who is supervising the treatment of your pet’s problem to ask for extra help.
If your pet was happy with the first click then give several more clicks, each followed by a food reward. Try, if possible, not to reach for the food or hold any in your hand until after you have made the click.

Next take your hand out from under your leg and give 20 or so more clicks, each followed by a food reward. Again, if at any time your dog looks unsettled or fearful, then stop and contact your veterinary surgeon or behaviourist. After this introduction your dog or cat should look pleased or excited whenever he or she hears a click.

You are now ready to start training with the clicker, but remember the rules:

• Never give a click without giving a reward.

• Never use the sound of the clicker to get your pet’s attention; you only give a click after he or she has responded to a command.

• Try to avoid handling food until you have given the click. Training works less well if you are fiddling with food all the time because your pet won’t concentrate on what he or she is doing when the next click happens.

The basic method for teaching commands using clicker training is to lure the dog or cat into performing an action, or allow it to happen naturally, and then to selectively click and reward the behaviour that you want to train to a command. Once your pet is doing exactly what you want, you can then give that behaviour a ‘name’ so that your dog or cat knows that this is what you want him to do when he hears that command.

Here is an example for training a “sit” command:

• Sit down with a pot of your pet’s favourite food treats on your lap, along with a clicker.

• Stay still and wait for your dog to sit down.

• Ignore or fend off all behaviour other than sitting.

• When your pet sits down you should click as soon as his backside hits the floor and then give him a food treat.

• If your pet stays sitting then give another click and food treat, otherwise wait until he sits down again.

You should find that the amount of time your pet spends sitting down increases dramatically over the course of the first 10 minutes or so, and that he stops doing all of the other things he was trying in order to get the food from you, such as jumping up or whimpering or running around.

When you know that your pet is sitting down again very reliably and quickly after collecting each treat then you can start to introduce the word ‘sit’:

• As your pet begins to sit down spontaneously say ‘your-pet’s-name, sit’ and then wait. As soon as he sits down give a click and food reward.

• Repeat this 20-30 times and your pet will have made the initial association between the command word ‘sit’ and what he should do to get the food.

You should now practice getting your pet to sit in a number of other situations, giving clicks and rewards for an obedient response.

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