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Click... and Wait?

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One of the great benefits of using a conditioned reinforcer, such as the clicker, is that it allows you to identify and strengthen a precise behavior even though you cannot give food at that particular instant.

The click functions as both a marker signal, identifying movement, and as a bridging stimulus, bridging the gap in time and space between action and reinforcer. That is the very basis of all the wonderful shaping we can do with the clicker. We can reinforce in the middle of a jump, or at a distance. We can catch the flick of an ear, a lifting paw, a tiny shift in weight, that will be past before food (or some other reinforcer) can be delivered. We can even click the moment an animal makes a good decision: turning away from a temptation, or controlling an urge to jump up.

Then the food comes, after the moment has passed.

But what if the food-or other reinforcer that is earned, expected, and anticipated-doesn't come right away? What happens when you click for a behavior, touching a target, say, and then delay the presentation of food? What does the animal do? Does it matter? Is there a length of delay that is "too long"?

At ClickerExpo: Chicago, Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz and his students from the University of North Texas reported on a phenomenon they have been studying in sheep. Jesus and his students trained sheep to touch a target for a click and a treat. They then instituted a delay in delivering the reinforcer. After the click, the student waited five seconds, motionless, before presenting the food. What happened? The animals began exhibiting new, untrained behaviors, such as pawing the ground.

We call this "displacement behavior." Displacement behavior is an activity that arises when an animal is in conflict: wanting to do or have something but unable to do it or obtain it. Displacement activities are usually related to either feeding or grooming. Horses and cattle nose or paw the ground. (In humans, nail biting or scratching the head when perplexed-grooming-related activities-might be considered forms of displacement behavior.)

Jesus and his students found that this behavioral response to a delayed reinforcer was reversible. Reduce the delay to less than two seconds, and the animal waited attentively. Put the delay back in, and the intervening behavior arose again.

That's what happens in sheep. Would it be the same with our dogs? After ClickerExpo:Chicago, Dr. Rosales-Ruiz undertook additional research with the help of two well-known clicker trainers, Sherri Lippmann and Virginia Broitman, authors of the "Bow Wow" series of videos. Sherri and Virginia felt that their highly-experienced dogs would not be distressed by a mere five-second delay. After all, in real life delays occur occasionally. Sometimes we give a click when the animal is far away, and it has to come back to us for a treat. Sometimes we see a great behavior and give a mouth click, but we're not quite ready and have to rummage through the bait bag, or even jump up and go to the kitchen, to get the payoff.

What would happen, then, if in a series of trials, after each click you just paused for five seconds? Broitman and Lippman did that. Wow! Even with experienced clicker dogs, displacement behavior cropped up right away, and included barking, as in "What on earth is wrong with you, where's my treat!" Delay, even for five seconds, had a huge effect on behavior.

While it will, of course, take some time before the research is completed and published, these initial findings have some useful implications for the rest of us. First it's true that the click is a bridge, a stimulus that bridges the gap in time and distance between behavior and reinforcer. But, as KPCT company president Aaron Clayton puts it, it is not the Golden Gate bridge. The clicker is a bridge with a limited span. Second, as Dr. Rosales-Ruiz points out, the tie between click and treat is classical conditioning, not operant conditioning. The actual pairing of the two, the conditioning, is only maintained by repetition. As clicker trainers, we should respect that.

Third, if you routinely click for a behavior, and then fumble around in your bait bag making the dog wait while you find a suitable treat and hand it over, you are taking a chance. You risk seeing a rise in undesired or superstitious behavior, such as wiggling, panting, getting up or lying down repeatedly, sniffing the ground, or looking away. You take a risk that that "hand moving toward bait bag" becomes the reinforcing element, making the unwanted behavior harder and harder to get rid of. You weaken the effect of the clicker as bridge (and while there's no research evidence yet, personally I suspect that doing so will also weaken the effect of the clicker as marker signal).

Kathy Sdao, in her Clicking with Class sessions at ClickerExpo, sometimes makes everyone transfer a handful of beans from a paper cup to their treat hand, and then dispense them, one by one, back into the cup, as treats. Can you do that? Can you do it fast? Kathy's aim is to see to it that you learn to keep your treats ready and in your hand before you start a training session, and that you learn to restock the supply in your hand between behaviors, NOT after you've clicked and while the dog is waiting for a reward.

It's not that you can't have a gap; it's just that there are sound, demonstrable reasons why the careful trainer does everything possible to eliminate prolonged, unnecessary, and habitual gaps. Paying attention to what you are doing while clicker training, in other words, is as important as paying attention to what your dog (or cat, or horse, or camel) is doing.

And what about those dogs and dolphins and other beasts that work at great distances and for long durations without tangible reinforcers? Yes, you can do that, but that capacity is trained; distance and duration are extended and strengthened by other conditioned reinforcers such as additional cues; not solely by the power of the click. A good topic for another day!

About the author
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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

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