What is clicker training?

What we call clicker training today was first developed shortly after WWII by marine mammal trainers working for the US Navy.  The underpinnings of their system was the research work of Ivan Pavlov, Edward Thorndike, and B.F. Skinner, all of whom made invaluable contributions to the science of how organisms learn.

Zoos use clicker training to teach animals large and small (elephants, big cats, gorillas, giraffes, birds and more) to cooperate for routine veterinary care, and to teach smaller animals to perform acts for educational shows.

Horse trainers use it to teach young horses and to rehabilitate neglected animals.

Many animals we see on commercials, tv shows and movies…are clicker trained: dogs, raccoons, rabbits, tortoises, llamas and more.  Think Benji and Babe for starters.

And of course it is used with terrific success in training pet DOGS!

The Mechanics of Clicker Training:

1. The animal is asked to perform a behavior
2.  The animal performs the desired behavior,
3. The trainer clicks or says a quick “yes!” as the behavior happens,
4. A reward is then given to the animal.

Can’t I just give my dog a treat for doing what I ask? 

You can, and even the most committed clicker trainers do not use a clicker all the time. Here’s why the clicker is such a powerful addition to our training toolbox particularly when we are teaching a new behavior or re-training a behavior that has gotten sloppy:

  • It speeds learning by giving a precisely timed message to the animal about the exact behavior that is being rewarded.

  • It helps build a bond of trust and confidence between dog and handler through increased reliability, a click aways predicts a treat.

  • It is pleasant for both human and animal, helping build a bond of trust, confidence and reliability, the click always predicts something good (a treat).

  • It is a training method built around rewarding success and ignoring mistakes, done correctly the successes increase leaving less and less room for mistakes (or misbehavior) to happen. 

  • The animal learns that certain behaviors make good things happen…treats, petting, play, and the owner can depend on a repertoire of trained behaviors from the dog.

  • It is invaluable when working with fearful and reactive dogs, because it allows the handler to click and reward the tiniest increments of improved behavior; a process known as shaping.

Watch or experience clicker training in action  and you will be struck by the sheer enjoyment of the learning process experienced by both dog and handler.

*Note: Ivan Pavlov (1846 – 1939), Russian medical researcher, Edward Thorndike (1874 –1949), psychologist, and B.F. Skinner (1904 –1990), psychologist.