Sunday, January 4, 2009

7. What is Clicker Training & Operant Conditioning?

In the 1930’s, BF Skinner was studying what was then a new type of Psychology, looking at animal behavior. While working with rats and pigeons, he discovered some basic principles about how an animal learned. Skinner fiound that animals could be conditioned to learn by operating the environment around them, just as we humans do. He called it Operant Conditioning.

Quite by accident, he found out that if a rat was presented with the opportunity to press a lever that dispensed food, it would first discover that it was rewarded for doing so, and then would increase the speed that it pressed the lever. He also discovered that the sound of the lever being pushed or the food dropping into the tray became a marker that a food reward was coming.

These principles made their way through popular use today by animal trainers all over the world starting with a dolphin trainer named Karen Pryor. Ms. Pryor wrote a book called "Don’t Shoot the Dog" and soon after it was published was asked to demonstrate the method with dogs, despite the book’s intention to popularize Skinner’s work to change human behavior.

In early training, she used a whistle for the sound (with the dolphins), but later used a toy box that made a click sound which was easily available to dog owners. That is why it is now known as clicker training. The animal is rewarded for behaviors you want and any behavior that is rewarded will become more frequent. Any behaviors that are nto rewarded will disappear.

So How Does it Work?
Your dog does a behavior, you click (or verbally mark) the behavior and reward the dog with a treat or toy and you try again. It's that easy!

You can capture a behavior that you dog already naturally does such as down or wait, or you can click and reward tiny behaviors that are in the right direction of the final behavior you are looking for. This last process, called Shaping, is where the clicker is most effective for teaching complex behaviors such as those needed for assistance dog work.

A bonus is that you can train your dog tasks at a distance as the click does all the communicating. So if your are ina wheelchair or can't bed down, you can still train your dog from your chair. The fact that the process is easy to learn and hands-off makes it ideal for people with disabilities to train their own dogs!

Once the dog can do a behavior consistently and in different places, the clicker then the food and toy rewards are phased out so all is needed is praise and a pet now and then.

Want to try it out?
All you need is a clicker (we recommend the rounder ones that have a raised button and they are more comofrtable in your hand and the raised button allows you to press them with your mouth, elbow, between your knees or even a foot in case your hands are not able or available.) that are available at local pet and feed stores for about $5. You can also use snapple or baby food lids, a click made by your mouth or even a click pen!

Have about 100 small soft treats that your dog really likes. Cut them into pieces the size of a pea. I use hard cheese, cooked meat bits such as roast beef, chicken or liver, hard boiled egg bits, or slow-cooked kidney beans but some dogs will work for Cheerios and cooked yam or turnip bits. After each click, give your dog a treat. Kibble does work well but because they tend to break apart (unless your dog gulps them whole) its better to use soft treats in the early stages.

Here is a video that introduces how to use the clicker. Note that the trainer does not give a cue (or command) at the early stage of the training. it is given until until AFTER the dog knows the behavior well and offers it consistently.

Watch for our next post for more clicker information!