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It's not Click/Treat, it's Click THEN Treat! Mechanical skills for clicker trainers

In clicker training, there are three fundamental handler skills, one for each segment of the ABC contingency (also known as the "Three Term Contingency") upon which clicker training operates (antecedent: behavior: consequence). The contingency assumes behavior is controlled by its consequences.

The first step in the contingency is the antecedent, or "what precedes the behavior". Initially, this may be a very subtle movement of the body (an example of this to come later). The most important handler skill at this stage is observation. Clicker training conditions dog owners to be much more aware of their dogs' body language.

For instance, in KPA, one of our assignments was to capture a tongue flick and put it on cue. Some of the students had such a hard time they had to spend over 60 three minute sessions just to get the behavior on cue!

The tongue flick often only lasts a fraction of a second, initially. I was having a hard time marking the behavior accurately until I honed my observation skills. Careful observation indicated Mokie's lips would tense and draw back just the teeniest bit before the tongue flick, so I began to predict the behavior.

This leads into the second stage of the contingency; behavior, and the mechanical skill which ties in with it, marking the behavior.

Remember, the clicker (I'm just using this as an example because this is what I use, substitute your own marker if you use a different one) is a bridging stimulus. Therefore, it bridges the time between the behavior and the consequence (punishment/reinforcement).

Steve Benjamin (Karen Pryor Academy faculty member and my mentor) once told me to think of the clicker as a camera...the timing of the clicker is such that "you are taking a picture" of the exact moment in time the learning subject offers the desired behavior.  If you are able to take a picture, you already have the skills necessary to mark desired behaviors.

There are a number of things one can do to improve their clicker timing. For timing practice, I suggest using a different marker. You don't want your dog to come running hopeful for a training session if you are just practicing your timing. When I practice my timing, I often blink my eyes or snap my fingers.

How does one practice marking behaviors and improving the speed of their timing? I practice by watching t.v. and blink when the camera angles change. Or I'll select a particular word, and blink whenever it is said on a t.v. show. I've sat down at the park before and blinked as a car's headlights passed a nearby street sign.

Or, you can practice online by playing around with the reflex tester available on this site: http://www.happyhub.com/network/reflex/. A word of warning, it's surprisingly addicting!  When I showed this website to some fellow clicker trainers, we had fun comparing our times.  (Interestingly, the reflex times seemed to differ substantially based on what color was selected)

For a bridging stimulus to be effective it has to be a predictor of the delivery of the reinforcement (or punishment, depending on the trainer and circumstance).  One of the biggest problems I see with "green" clicker trainers is that they click and treat at the same time, or are fumbling with the treat bag as they are clicking. This is sloppy training, and needs to be cleaned up.

This brings us to the third section of the contingency, consequence.

What I don't like about "Treating while you're clicking": it devalues the marker signal while undermining its purpose. If the dog is focusing on the food, the click has been overshadowed.  The marker is only useful if there is a time gap to bridge between the behavior and reinforcement. If you can reinforce as the behavior is occurring there is nothing to bridge.  The click and the reinforcement should be two separate events.

Ideally, the consequence (reinforcement) should be delivered less than two seconds after the behavior (marker/bridge). 

We always start class with an exercise called "start your dog." We set a timer for thirty seconds. In this time, the handler is to click THEN treat their dogs as many times as possible. We emphasize having the handler return their treat hand hand to a neutral position while they are clicking.

I like to click with my right hand and reinforce with my left, generally. So my left hand is totally still and not in or near my treat bag as I click. If you are digging around in your treat bag while you are clicking, it takes the dog's focus off the click and puts it on the food, which is not what we want. Doing so makes it harder to wean off food reinforcement and teaches a dog not to work unless food is in sight.

During the "start your dog" exercise, the students are asked to count how many click/reinforcement pairs they deliver. Usually, we aim for a minimum of fifteen, to maintain the desirable two second window. The record is held at twenty four, I believe, by a lady and her miniature daschund.

As you practice the timing exercises you may notice your speed at text messaging or skill at photography increases directly with your practice on your clicker timing.  As they should!  You are, after all, improving your coordination.

Also, a warning to new clicker trainers...please don't click near your dog's ears!  Often, when a dog is frightened by the sound of the clicker, it is because someone has clicked too close to his ears. An iClick is much softer sounding than a traditional box clicker or a Triple Crown (the TC is my favorite, incidentally). Take any clicker and click it right next to your ear, see how you like it! Imagine how much more startling in an animal that hears much better than we.


Ball game: you can do this by yourself, or with a helper. Drop a bouncy ball on the floor and click each time it bounces. As it loses the upward momentum you'll notice the bounces are much smaller but also a lot faster. You can also click when the ball reaches it's zenith in the arc from the ground up.

Cup and Beans: You can use dried beans and any cup for this exercise. Initially, you can have someone else click and you deliver the treat to the cup. Later, you will be clicking, then "treating" through delivering to the cup. Keep track of your time and CTs as mentioned above in the "start your dogs" exercise.

Often, the slowest part of the reinforcement process is reaching in your treat bag. Practice filling your hand with treats and cycling treats through your hand, one at a time, delivered to the cup or your dog.

Drop the Keys: Put your clicker on a table, and your keys next to it on the table. Pick up the keys, drop them, and try to grab your clicker and click before the keys hit the ground!

Colorful Cups:  You will need a helper for this!  Select three different cups of different colors (bowls will work equally well).  Lay them on a table in a row.  Have your clicker ready in hand, your treat bag, hand or pocket well stocked with dried beans or other markers, and have your volunteer call out a color.  Quickly click, turn, and deposit a marker into the appropriate colored bowl.  Have your helper start out slowly, and then increase the speed in which the colors are called.

Learn a new physical skill:  whether you're dancing, ice skating, or playing tennis, good timing is involved in all of these physical activities.  The better your general coordination, the better your clicker skills will be.

Take up photography!  Photography, as mentioned above, is all about timing.  As an added bonus, it's fun!

Video games:  Video games are built around good timing, particularly using your hands.  I enjoy a good video game now and then, and am impressed with how precise your timing needs to be! For those of you with teenage children who are video game fanatics, get a clicker in their hands!

Watching sports:   Like baseball?  Click when the ball hits a player's glove, or when the bat connects with the ball.  Football?  Click on the catch.  Basketball?  Click as the ball swishes through the hoop.

Do it!  The final, and best way to practice, is through clicker training your dog, horse, cat, fish, hamster, spouse, etc.