Originally published 10/01/2006.
I began teaching people how to clicker train their dogs in 1996. At that time, most pet owners had never heard of clicker training and few class instructors took it seriously. Mine was the only advertisement in the local Yellow Pages that mentioned the word "clicker." I had to persuade students to even try this novel gadget.
A decade later, clickers are now common in dog training classes. But, I suggest, clicker training still is not common enough.
I do believe "clicker training" is an unfortunate term for what we do. It's misleading in two ways:
- You can "clicker train" without ever touching a clicker. I did this when I trained marine mammals. During those 11 years, I used various behavioral markers, including an adjustable-pitch Acme Silent Dog Whistle (with beluga whales), an underwater acoustic ping (with US Navy dolphins in the open ocean), the word "good" said with specific pitch and inflection (with a walrus named E.T.), and a single silent clap—a visual marker (with the dolphins at the University of Hawaii's Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory).
- You can use a clicker for training, yet be doing something quite different than "clicker training." I've met trainers who see nothing odd about holding a clicker in one hand and the transmitter of a remote shock-collar in the other. Their carrots are backed up by big sticks. Clearly, this is not clicker training.
So we're left trying to define genuine "clicker training" in order to distinguish it from "training with a clicker." Before I attempt this, let me acknowledge a few things:
- Clear definitions matter. They allow us to talk about abstract ideas with as little ambiguity in our conversations as possible.
- Definitions are social constructs. They aren't handed down from on high, etched into granite tablets. We—everyone who uses the language—create them, through discussion and consistent usage, though the opinion of experts does tend to carry more weight.
- Clicker training is a powerful behavior-modification process. It warrants delineation from other training approaches.
- It is needlessly divisive to define "clicker trainers" (versus "non-clicker trainers"). We are talking about a method and a philosophy, not a classificatory label. Though I passionately promote clicker training in seminars around the country, I sometimes use other training techniques (e.g., classical counter-conditioning). When working with animals, sometimes I'm clicker training and sometimes I'm not. Whether I (or anyone else, for that matter) should be labeled a "clicker trainer" seems beside the point.
And so, when you use a clicker to train your animal, are you clicker training (CT) or training with a clicker (TWC)? To answer this, consider the following questions:
- Is the click an event marker?
CT: The click pinpoints a behavioral instant, a moment of muscle movement. (With clicker-savvy animals, the click may sometimes be used to mark instants of non-behavior.)
TWC: The click is used in a less precise way, as a general signal that the animal has earned a reward.
Is the click a release?
CT: The click informs the animal that his movement met the trainer's current criterion; that is, his behavior was "enough" to earn reinforcement.
TWC: After a click, the trainer may require further behavior from the animal before paying up (e.g., after clicking, the trainer withholds reinforcement because the animal didn't stay in place, or didn't finish the weave poles).
Is the click meaningful?
CT: It is essential that the animal recognize the click as an independently meaningful signal. Therefore, great care is taken to ensure that the sound of the click occurs in a sort of "stimulus void."
TWC: The click is often overshadowed or blocked by other stimuli salient to the animal, occurring simultaneously with the click (e.g., the presence of a food lure on the dog's nose, the trainer's intention movements toward food). As a result, the animal becomes desensitized to the sound of the click; he will not react to it in ways that indicate anticipation of food or play (e.g., flicking the ears, looking toward the source of the click, wagging the tail).
Does the click predict a strong positive reinforcement?
CT: The click is paired with the animal's deepest desires: food, toys, interactive games, social companionship, etc.
TWC: The click is often paired with weaker reinforcements such as praise and petting.
Is the treat delivered "in position"?
CT: The emphasis is on delivering the treat as soon as possible after the click (though never simultaneous with the click). The treat is delivered regardless of the animal's position subsequent to the click. The trainer knows that the animal's position at the instant of treat delivery is reinforced, and so, when planning a training session, considers various ways to provide the reinforcement.
TWC: The emphasis is on delivering the treat while the dog is still in the correct position. Treats may be withheld if the dog moves out of position when hearing the click (e.g., the dog forges ahead of heel position or gets up from a sit).
Who is doing more work: the trainer or the trainee?
CT: The trainee is the more active participant, moving more than the trainer who remains relatively passive. The animal's job is to behave, that is, to move; the trainer's job is to observe the animal and to deliver timely, consistent, frequent reinforcements.
TWC: The trainer is the more active participant, moving more than the animal who remains relatively passive. The trainer is focused on making behavior happen, and uses food lures, body language, and physical prompts to "help" the animal.
Is speed of acquisition of a few key behaviors the most important goal of the training process?
CT: Each training session is an investment in the animal's future ability to learn. Knowing this, the trainer sacrifices instant compliance to gain momentum toward the goal of accelerated learning, when the animal has "learned to learn" and training becomes virtually effortless. This is often accomplished by allowing animals to get "unstuck" on their own, without lures and prompts from the trainer.
TWC: The priority is getting the animal to perform a particular behavior (e.g., getting a dog to lie down quickly and completely). Lures, prompts, and physical molding—all behavioral antecedents—may be used to speed this process. The animal may learn this initial behavior quite quickly, but also may be hindered in future learning situations by a tendency to remain passive, waiting for "hints" from the trainer.
Are all four quadrants of the operant conditioning grid used equally?
CT: Clicker training is an intentionally "unbalanced" form of operant conditioning. It has a preferential option for positive reinforcement (i.e., the trainer adds stimuli the animal desires), and, to a lesser extent, negative punishment (i.e., the trainer removes stimuli the animal desires). In most cases, clicker training avoids using positive punishment (i.e., the trainer adds stimuli the animal dislikes) and negative reinforcement (i.e., the trainer removes stimuli the animal dislikes), knowing the fallout that can result. Clicker training gets rid of unwanted behaviors using extinction, the training of replacement behaviors, management, and negative punishment.
TWC: The four possible consequences are used in proportions that are more equal. Positive punishments such as collar-pops, physical manipulation, and verbal reprimands are used to get rid of problem behaviors and to deal with the animal's non-compliance. These aversives are interspersed with clicks and treats.
Is the main emphasis control or communication?
CT: Clicker training is an elegant and effective method for communicating with animals in a coherent way. It challenges humans to strip away the constraints of verbal language and to tap into a more universal way of conveying information. Control of the animal's behaviors then flows as a by-product of consistent, clear communication and effective motivation.
TWC: Behavioral control is the principal goal of training. Communicating with the animal is the means to this end.
Is it important to realize the animal's full behavioral and cognitive potential?
CT: At its best, clicker training maximizes each animal's potential. It strives to make the animal a fully active, thinking participant in the training process. It encourages the presence of "the other" by constantly expanding animals' behavioral repertoires and by providing ever-greater cognitive challenges.
TWC: Training with a clicker may also aim high, attempting to tap into the animal's maximum potential. Often, though, the ultimate goal is a specific repertoire of discrete "obedience" behaviors, performed reliably on command.
Of course, when you come right down to it, a clicker has no inherent meaning. It can be used in all sorts of ways, both within animal training and outside that realm (e.g., US Airborne troops in World War II used clickers to identify friendly forces; Catholic nuns before Vatican II used them to cue the movements of students in church). My hope, though, is that the term "clicker training" will come to have a standardized meaning and that my colleagues who "train with clickers" will call their method something else.
Kathy Sdao's explanation of the difference between clicker training and training with a clicker has been translated into Dutch to share with dog trainers in the Netherlands. To read the article in Dutch, click here.