Over 100 years ago the American psychologist Edward Lee Thorndike started studying how animals learn through operant conditioning and behaviour modification. Thorndike’s First Law of Effect states that the frequency of a behaviour is dependent upon its immediate outcome. It also states that if the outcome of a behaviour is unpleasant, the behaviour will decrease in frequency. 

Clicker Training came into being in the early 1950’s, when BF Skinner began to study the science and technology of training. From this beginning the science of behaviour became a powerful, practical, and useful behavioural technology. Karen Pryor popularized the name Clicker Training, which has become almost synonymous with operant conditioning. During the last decade, Clicker Training has spread throughout the world, reaching South Africa in the late 1980’s. The versatility and power of this method has ensured its ongoing popularity.

Clicker Training is a term used to describe a type of training that makes use of a conditioned reinforcer, usually the sound of a plastic clicker, to mark a behaviour that will be rewarded. Clicker Training uses the science of Operant Conditioning, which notes that behaviours that are rewarded are made stronger and will occur more frequently.

The first step is to condition the animal to the sound of the clicker. The click tells the animal exactly what it is that the trainer is trying to reinforce. Dogs quickly learn to repeat whatever they were doing when they heard that click in order to earn a reward. The result is that the dog becomes much more attentive in its effort to try and offer the desired behaviour. One great benefit of this type of training is that you cannot harm the animal. Because no voice, chain or lead is used, the animal cannot be physically, mentally or psychologically harmed. It is an entirely forgiving process, a fact that greatly accelerates the rate of learning. The animal soon learns that if it offers the wrong behaviour, it will not be punished, but will simply get no reward. So it tries again, and again, and again…

Dog handlers have used Clicker Training to achieve success in agility, stance in the breed ring, freestyle heeling, flyball, tracking, working trials, obedience, search-and-rescue, guide dogs, other service dogs, dogs for the deaf, etc. The method has also been successfully used to deal with aggression, fear, and other behavioural problems. Many people are not interested in entering shows with their animals, yet enjoy interacting and communicating with their pets. To this end dogs have been taught to ring a bell when they want to go outside to relieve themselves (very useful for dogs that travel with their handlers and spend time in strange hotels). Useful behaviours like switching lights on and off, opening and closing doors, fetching slippers etc. can all be taught using Clicker Training. I even know someone who taught their cat to put the washing in the washing machine! 

Any animal can benefit from this type of training. This method can therefore be used on any dog of any age – breeders start conditioning their puppies to the sound of the clicker as soon as their ears open, and handlers with geriatric or physically incapacitated dogs can use the method to offer their pets a bit of mental stimulation. The method has been extensively used for marine mammals: in the 1970’s Bob and Marion Bailey did pioneering work with free swimming dolphins (e.g. to identify sunken airplanes).Clicker training differs from other forms of training in two ways – firstly it uses a conditioned reinforcer, the clicker, which is used to mark the exact moment that the animal is offering the behaviour we want; and secondly, clicker trainers make greater use of successive approximation. What this means is that clicker trainers are able to break behaviours down into small steps, which are more achievable and infinitely more understandable to the dog. As Karen Pryor wrote in her book “Don’t Shoot the Dog!”, “you cannot use a leash or bridle or even your fist on an animal that just swims away. Positive reinforcement – primarily a bucket of fish – was the only tool we had”. During the past 30 years Clicker Training (the animal trainers’ manner of utilizing the principles of operant conditioning) has swept across America and Canada and Europe, and found its way to South Africa during the late 1980’s.

“You can train any animal to do anything it is mentally and physically capable of doing” says Dr Marian Breland Bailey of training through operant conditioning.
The use of reward, rather than coercion, paved the way for a much gentler and more co-operative way of training. Dog trainers began to question their methods – after all, if a 600-pound dolphin or an adult African Elephant can be trained without force, why can’t we train our dogs in a similar way? The upshot of this is that clicker training was popularised in an entirely “new” approach to dog training which no longer requires force and compulsion, but is based on mutual trust and communication.

In any situation, with clicker training the animal has a choice of response – he can walk on a loose lead, or he can yank your arm out of its socket. He can quietly let you examine his eyes, or he can try to snap at your face. He has this choice whether you have him throttled with a choke chain, muzzled or loose. The aim of any training is to cause him to choose the mutually preferable option. Anyone will tell you that the motivation derived from working towards something we really want is infinitely greater than working to avoid something we don’t want.

We need to be reminded that training is a two-way street in which the action of one results in a reaction or response from the other. Perhaps the most powerful thing about clicker training is that you can actually see when the dog understands what you are asking of it. You *know* when the dog realizes what you want it to do, and it is the most wonderful feeling when you see the dog repeatedly offering the behaviour you desire not because you’re pulling the end of the lead, but because the dog *chooses* to do it. Of course this leads to one of the most important advantages of this method, the dog’s great attitude and desire to communicate. Clicker training can completely change a dog’s attitude. Because it is now in control (or operant), the dog can relax and offer a behaviour that it considers appropriate. No more stress because it can’t understand what is required of it. Instead it just tries and tries again until it gets rewarded for a particular action. So the principal on which operant conditioning operates is that any action that is reinforced is likely to be repeated. In clicker training we take this principle and selectively reinforce actions which we like, ignoring those that we don’t.

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