The process entails the trainer marking certain behaviours with a sign, in this case, a 'click', which is emitted from a small handheld unit called the 'clicker', after which a treat is given, the animal subsequently begins to associate the sound of the click with the behaviour it has just demonstrated and the treat which follows.
This form of communication is an effective, clear, and most importantly, ethical, way of encouraging desired behaviours in animals that are physically and mentally able. It is also possible to use this method in other areas of training, such as obedience training, as well as helping to address problematic behaviour.
This method was popularised by the American animal trainer Karen Pryor in her work with dolphins, but it has since been used to train a diverse range of animals, domesticated and wild, big and small, young and old. Some of the species this method has been successfully used to train include dogs, cats, guinea pigs, birds, leopards, rats, rabbits, chinchillas.
Why is clicker training so effective?
Clicker training is born from behaviourism and begins with classical conditioning, whereby, following the sound of the click, the animal receives a treat. This process is repeated, and eventually, the animal connects the click with a pleasurable 'reward'.
Operant conditioning follows from this and can be identified as beginning when the animal purposefully repeats actions in order to receive a treat.The advantage of operant conditioning is that the animal doesn't merely produce a reflexive response to stimuli; instead, he begins to consciously choose specific actions in order to gain a reward, making him an active participant in the process.
The other benefit of this kind of training is that it doesn't seek to punish 'bad' behaviours, only to encourage 'good' ones, meaning the animal is not only an active participant but a happy one too.
Why do we use a clicker?
The noise made by the clicker is clear, and, importantly, always the same, meaning the animal is receiving the same acoustic signal each time this training method is used.
With the help of this unmistakable signal, the trainer is able to highlight behaviour for which the animal will receive a reward. In essence, the 'click' is a clear, and easy to administer connection between behaviour and reward.
Why a click and not just a word?
Whereas the human voice contains a myriad of nuances, and is susceptible to change based on anything from emotions, to a slight cold, the sound emitted by the clicker does not undergo any changes, meaning it can be easily understood because its signal remains constant, irrespective of differing conditions. Moreover, people often speak too much, which can make it difficult for the animal to identify any key marker words.
How does clicker training work?
In the first steps, the animal always receives a treat after hearing the click. After several repetitions, the animal connects the click with something pleasurable > a treat.
Quickly, sometimes after two or three clicks, the animal will perceive the connection between the signal and the reward. Since it wants to repeat this pleasant experience, it will repeat the successful action.
Later the animal will always get a click and a treat when it shows correct behaviour. Command > correct behaviour > click > treat.
Soon the animal will learn the connection between the signal and the reward and will repeat the successful behaviour to receive more treats.
- Wait until the animal shows the correct behaviour
- As soon as the behaviour is performed mark with a click
- Followed straight away by reinforcing the behaviour with a treat
How to develop the correct behaviour?
The trainer waits for the animal to display correct behaviour naturally, for example, when the animal sits without being directed to do so; as soon as this happens the trainer clicks and follows-up with a reward, usually in the form of an edible treat. The trainer will gradually begin to use the words for the desired actions in conjunction with this method, so that the animal becomes familiar with the sounds of these words too (such as 'sit' 'down' etc.).
Why clicker trainer is not as effective when used to punish?
A survey carried out by the University of Bristol revealed that dogs do not learn any more when punished for negative behaviour than they do when rewarded for positive behaviour. In fact, in the case of this particular study, the opposite was found to be true, with the punished dogs showing increased signs of problematic behaviour. This approach can also compromise the welfare of the animal and engender fear.
This is in stark contrast to animals who receive proper clicker training, who learn by repeating behaviours for reward, rather than avoiding certain behaviour due to fear of punishment.
Is it always necessary to click and then give a treat?
Once an animal has learned what is expected of him, neither the click nor the treat is necessary. Both can be replaced by positive words and other kinds of rewards, such as fuss and attention!
Which animals can be 'clicked'?
Clicker training is not just suitable for dogs and cats. Almost every animal can be trained with a clicker - even fish, only that the clicker is replaced by a laser beam.
Clicker training in BEAR SANCTURIES
FOUR PAWS uses clicker training in its BEAR SANCTURIES, such as BEAR SANCTUARY Mueritz (Germany), BEAR SANCTUARY Domazhyr (Ukraine) and BEAR SANCTUARY Prishtina (Kosovo). The main aim of clicker training is to 'communicate' with the bears and to encourage cooperative behaviour, which is important for example in the administration of medication, the checking of teeth, and animal management in general. It helps to build trust on both sides, creating a strong relationship between the animal and its keeper. Daily contact and necessary medical treatments become much less stressful for both sides.
Clicker training is also used to occupy the animals and provide mental stimulation (reducing anxiety and stress) in order to improve their physical and psychological well-being.
In summary, using a clicker to encourage certain behaviours is both a positive and effective method of training. Even timid animals can learn without fear and with fun leading to faster learning and a stronger bond between animal and human.