Why Use a Clicker for Dog Training?
I recently got a question from a subscriber about clicker training and WHY, why do we clicker train?
Actually I get this question often, very often, especially whenever I start a new program or refer specifically to clicker training.
And, although I know I have also discussed this in other articles regarding clicker training; I wanted to address this question definitely.
How Clicker Training Started
Clicker training or “Marker Training” started with exotic animals like sea lions and whales for live marine and aquarium shows.
Typically even large exotic animals like tigers and bears could be trained coercively with cattle prods and whips; but it is very difficult if not impossible to force a whale or other large sea mammal in his habitat (the water; when this isn’t our habitat) to perform a behavior he does not want to perform.
So behaviorists, or trainers working with marine mammals learned that pairing a marker (in this case a whistle that these animals could also hear under water) paired with a primary reinforcer (food, all animals need food to survive) could teach these large mammals to continue or show certain behaviors.
Positive reinforcement or having the animal work for the primary reinforce, food, proved even scientifically to be an easier way for these animals to learn than the old usage or coercion, force, corrections and punishment.
This is why the tone of animal training (including those of exotics) changed from coercion to positively reinforcing behavior for a primary reinforcer (food, water, i.e. something the animal needs).
You can search the internet all day on why positive reinforcement works better than punishment and looking up BF Skinner’s work but here is just one link from the Larimer Humane Society .
We can also get into positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment but I won’t muddy the waters about that here; I will use layman’s terms for those who aren’t trainers.
Here is Wikipedia’s definitions of Reinforcement for those who are curious.
Suffice it to Say This Article is About Why Use the Clicker; Not Why Use Positive Reinforcement Training
I have written many of those articles and for just one click here for the Power of Positive Reinforcement .
The marker (the whistle or the clicker) is always consistent. The sound is the same no matter which trainer or person is using it and so it’s meaning is easily transferred.
Unlike the human voice, which is different with each person and can actually vary in tone with the same person; a whistle or a marker is consistently the same tone and can make the same sound.
This is why the clicker was invented for dogs; not because dogs naturally like a clicking noise or anything other than simply using a consistent sound that can be paired with a reinforcer. Plus, using your hand (for clicking instead of whistling) leaves your mouth available for praising and giving other commands
This means your wife, your husband, your child, your mom, sister or whomever can teach and work with your dog consistently without having to worry about the differences in voice and tone and the confusion of using different commands.
Your Brain to Your Hand is Faster
For dog training, it has been studied, (by I believe Karen Pryor and Gary Wilkes among others I am sure) that the impulses from your brain can send a signal to your hand to click faster than your brain can send a signal to your mouth for the right word and tone to get out of your mouth.
This makes sense if you think about it; clicking something with your hand is a more simple behavior than forming words much less making them sound the same and be consistent.
So essentially it is easier for your dog to learn if you use a marker that is consistent and is not your mouth.
Doesn’t matter if you use a traditional clicker that was made for dog training, if you use the head of a pen, if you use a whistle (although as I stated that will take a bit longer and boggles up your mouth), or if you find anything else that will make a simple noise with your hand consistently it is easier and faster for your dog to learn with one of these kinds of markers.
Why Do People Use Their Voice
So why then, do people use their voice?
I think there are several reasons, although I will touch on a few.
People are worried that they are going to have to carry a clicker everywhere (which isn’t the case) for more on clicker basics click here.
People can be lazy (me included) so buying and carrying a clicker can be more than what people want to do in the teaching phases.
Some of Us Use Both
I do BOTH. I know how imperative the clicker is in the beginning for learning so in the beginning I let the clicker do the training, then once the dog has learned what the marker means (treat, food, etc.) then I add a word.
I say YES!!! And I try to use the same inflection when I say it so my dog recognizes it as a marker like he would with the clicker (although again this is hard to transfer to my husband).
But, this way if I leave my clicker or I need to mark a behavior later I can use my voice as well to mark the behavior or reward it.
However, whenever I teach a new behavior I break out the clicker for the beginning of the learning phases; then we move to voice marker. This allows my dog to learn quickly and still gives me the use of my voice when I need it.
So I use both; but I definitely know and have seen the reasons for working with the clicker (I tried to use just my voice in the beginning of my career) and I can see the difference in my dogs.
So, I say, go get a clicker and get started!!!
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.