What is Clicker Training?

Mary McMahon

Clicker training is a type of operant conditioning used successfully by many animal trainers. It is a gentle and kind method of animal training which usually results in consistent correct behavior. Rather than some types of training which rely on force to teach lessons, clicker training rewards an animal for performing an action correctly, rather than punishing misbehavior.

Clicker training is a gentle way to train animals of all kinds.
Clicker training is a gentle way to train animals of all kinds.

Three things are needed for clicker training: an animal, a clicker, and treats. Animals of all shapes and sizes from rats to whales have been taught with the assistance of a clicker. It helps if the animal has already begun to learn some basic behaviors, but you can also start from scratch. The clicker is a small hand held box which emits a clicking sound when a button is depressed. Most animal supply stores stock clickers, or you can use a child's toy. Finally, treats are required. You want to find treats which can be served in very small portions, since you will be giving them out liberally.

Rats can be trained with the assistance of a clicker.
Rats can be trained with the assistance of a clicker.

Clicker training relies on two psychological principles, operant conditioning and reinforcement. Operant conditioning is the idea that animals will repeat a behavior which has a positive result, and will not repeat behaviors which have neutral or negative results. This concept of operant conditioning is used in laboratories around the world every day. Reinforcement has to do with how the behavior is rewarded. If you give a dog a treat for sitting down, the treat is a primary reinforcer, because the dog will actively work for the treat. If you use a clicker and then give the dog a treat in a repeated series, the dog will learn to associate the clicking with a treat, and it will view the click as a reward. This is the foundation of clicker training.

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Clicker training is accomplished in brief sessions which work in small steps. No one expects an animal to get a behavior perfectly on the first try. Being too demanding can lead to confusion and frustration on both sides. Therefore, training proceeds in stages. First, the animal is trained to respond to the clicker. Throughout the training, a treat will be given after a click. The idea is to use the click to precisely reward a behavior as it happens, so that the animal knows exactly what it is being rewarded for. Next, the trainer decides on what behavior is going to be taught.

For example, perhaps you want to use clicker training to teach a cat to jump through a hoop. Start by leading the cat through the hoop while it is on the ground, rewarding the cat with a click as he or she passes through, and then a treat. Do this six or seven times, and repeat over the course of several days, slowly raising the hoop each day. As the task gets more demanding, only reward the cat for the desired behavior. If the cat does anything other than walking, and eventually jumping, through the hoop, do not offer a reward. Eventually, the cat will learn to jump through a hoop held in the air as a result of the clicker training, and it will continue to do so as long as you reward the behavior.

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