Why Click Instead of Just Praising Your Dog?
I get this question pretty often from people who are new to clicker training. The basic explanation is that while praise may be fine for maintaining an existing skill, the click (or verbal marker) is simply the best, fastest way to teach new cues and skills.
The click provides both information and motivation; both are necessary for learning in all species. It’s a short, unique sound that tells the learner, You just did the right behavior and a reward is coming. It always sounds the same and is always followed by a reinforcer. Treats work best for reinforcing beginners, but later on you can use anything your dog loves and wants in that moment.
Click What You See and Like
Because we click at the moment of the desired behavior, the dog clearly understands what she did to earn the reinforcer. How do we know this? Because she will do it again immediately, and again. The more repetitions, clicks, and treats, the faster the dog learns to connect the new cue to her behavior.
A good trainer knows how to get a behavior started without saying a word. The cue is inserted once the behavior is reliable. In the old days, they would start with a command and try to force the dog (who might be scared, confused, or bored) to respond appropriately.
Trying to teach with praise takes much longer because it is nowhere near as clear. It’s usually two words, like Good Girl; the way it sounds can vary a lot (in volume, tone, emphasis, and duration), causing confusion; and it sounds different coming from different people. And praise is not always followed by a treat or other reinforcer.
Praise can eventually become a reinforcer. This happens when you make a habit of saying Good Girl after the click, before the treat. But don’t use praise alone until the behavior is strong enough that you are fading out treats and replacing them slowly with real-life rewards.
The only way to know for sure whether praise IS reinforcing for your dog is how she looks when she hears it (happy?) AND if her response does not deteriorate. Is she just as reliable when you reward with praise, as compared with food rewards? Alrighty then! But don’t eliminate treats completely if your dog loves them.
Many people fault their dog for being slow or failing to respond at all to cues that they believe the dog already knows. Some don’t want to use food, or only a little, or they just feel that praise should be good enough. Other reasons for poor responses:
1. When it comes to motivation, individual dogs have their preferences, just like people do. Praise usually needs to acquire value by being paired with food, or touch, smiles, and happy talk.
2. Maybe the cue wasn’t trained all the way—i.e., in different locations, adding in distractions, distance, and duration, separately. And treats often need to be higher in value when we make things harder!
3. Maybe treats were discontinued too soon, so the dog lost motivation, and so the behavior grew weaker.
4. Maybe the dog never really understood the cue in the first place, due to confusing or inconsistent cues and consequences.
Timing Is Everything
With a clicker, we can be very precise in our timing, so there’s no confusion. Without a clicker, the reward is usually not delivered quickly enough. Any animal will assume that whatever it did immediately before the reward appeared was the reason for it, which can lead to misunderstandings.
For example, how often have we inadvertently reinforced jumping up or barking with attention? That's how it becomes a habit. Another example: During house training, some people will give a treat for eliminating on grass after they are back in the house. How can the dog understand that what she did outside 30 seconds ago is what the treat is for? Note that a delay of even 3 seconds is enough time for a busy dog to do a handful of other behaviors!
A clicker “bridges” the time between the behavior and the reward. It communicates exactly what the dog needs to know in order to repeat the behavior you want. And because the click predicts delivery of something the dog values, it maintains the dog’s focus and willingness to “work.”
In fact, clicker-trained dogs and other animals show great joy and enthusiasm in learning and advancing their skills. They learn very quickly and become really attentive and cooperative, which certainly helps us get the responses we’re looking for. That’s why it’s being used more and more to train working dogs, replacing coercive methods, and by progressive veterinarians to facilitate exams and procedures, instead of forcibly holding dogs down.
I first heard about the clicker in the early 1990s, when I was seeking training for our bull terrier, Barley. It was new to the dog-training world, and I rejected it unthinkingly as some kind of gimmick. Little did I know then that I would eventually become a trainer myself and totally love clicking to teach everything from good manners to (emotional) behavior modification.
One Tool for Many Species
The concept of marker training started with whistles used to train marine mammals for military tasks and for entertainment. Countless trainers and handlers also click horses, birds, cats, other small pets, and exotic species (in zoos and labs). Can you imagine training a chicken to peck a certain object or go through a little agility course? For many years, trainers wanting to sharpen their timing and observation skills have gone to “chicken camp.”
Want to learn more about the fundamentals of clicker training? Go to https://clickertraining.com/taxonomy/term/28
For a demonstration of clicker training, call me. If you live near Easton, Maryland, that is. I love to show how effective it is, right off the bat, and for people to see how much their dogs enjoy learning this way!
Copyright Lisa Benshoff 2018