A lot of people think about trying out clicker training, but can't seem to figure out how to get started. Some don't even fully understand what clicker training really is, and I know it can be confusing. So let me break it down for you in this post!
So What is Clicker Training?
Clicker training is a method of shaping behavior using positive reinforcement. There is no magic to the clicker itself, but rather in the timing of how it is used in your training. The purpose of the clicker is to enhance the clarity of your communication. When the animal (or person) you are working with performs the suggested action, you can immediately and effectively indicate that yes, what they did was correct. The technique is the gold, the clicker is just a tool.
I use clicker training to teach new things, and frequently in training sessions. I do not use the clicker every time I work with my animals, and they are not dependent on the clicker. They do, however, seem to have much more fun and enthusiasm when the clicker is in my hand. I use the clicker with my horses the most, my dogs, and also with my cats.
How Does it Work?
For a known behavior, the click needs to happen only once the action has taken place. The timing is critical, too late and the reason that the clicker works is lost. Clarity is key; once something is done correctly, you only have that moment to tell the trainee that they were right.
When learning a new behavior, I use a slightly different technique. Every effort should be rewarded when learning something new, even if it is not super close to the desired end result. Reward the "try" and once the behavior is learned, withhold the click until the behavior is completed. Always be open-minded and flexible, because in my experience I often have my animals take a few steps back on occasion with a new trick, and I will return to clicking for "tries" before returning to clicking only for the desired behavior.
How Do You Start?
The first thing you must do when starting with the clicker is teach your animal friends not to be afraid of the sound. Associate the clicker with something positive, such as praise, toys, or treats. Click, then reward. Do this in short sessions, and as many times as necessary for them to hear the click and then look to you for the reward. Use the clicker to reward already known behavior to practice and help solidify the idea. Need an example? I want to reward my dog for sitting down. I ask for him to sit, and as soon as his bum hits the floor, "click!" and reward.
After the clicker is understood as a way of saying "yes", you can use the clicker several times without an additional treat or reward. The click alone can serve as the reward for some. The way I use it? I click for every try for something new and every success for learned actions. I give a treat reward for everything done extremely well and every success of a new trick, or periodically after several activities while giving them a break. It changes for each animal, based on their mood and what we're working on at the time. The most important part is consistency, so if you have a system that works then stick to it!