I thought I’d review how clicker training is not just about the “clicker” but instead, about a philosophy of training.  This philosophy is based on treating our animal friends with respect, kindness, and keeping empathy for our animals high on our radar.  As a result, we make a few major choices with our training.

1.  We decide to positively reward the behaviors we want, and ignore (we don’t punish or instill fear) the behaviors we don’t want.

2.  We use a marker signal that’s clear and precise to signal the behaviors we will reward (and the behaviors we like).

3.  We pair the marker signal with a good primary reinforcer such as food (a primary reinforcer is something an animal enjoys by itself – a secondary reinforcer is something an animal has learned to enjoy).

4.  When teaching something new, we use these techniques in addition to marking specific actions with the clicker:

a.  We break the training of the goal behavior down into steps the animal can handle and enjoy learning (this is called “shaping”).
b.  We find a time when the animal offers the behavior, then click/reward the offered behavior.  We continue this until the animal understands and begins deliberately offering the behavior. (this is called “capturing”)
c.  We use a target stick to initiate the behavior, then fade out the target stick.  Examples would be teaching a “spin” or “go through the legs.”
d.  We use treat placement to help our animals understand a movement based new behavior (so, we deliver a treat away from us if we want our animal to finish a behavior away from our side).
e.  We sometimes use a food or toy lure to initiate behaviors needing confidence, but as with any lure, we quickly fade it and go back to delivering treats from our treat bag.
f.  We can also teach something new by having our animal imitate us or another animal.  This is a more complex behavior as you need to teach your animal a cue which means “imitate me,” but it’s certainly a fun way to teach new behaviors!  You can see two examples below – one is a Wreathed Hornbill naturally imitating some people in an exercise class:


And the other is a brief overview of a trainer out of Italy who teaches dogs to imitate their humans.  We teach this to our clients, so let us know if you’re interested!

Learning By Imitation

So, if you’re out and about trying to explain to your friends and family what clicker training is all about, you’re welcome to send them this list.  It’s not just about the clicker!!

We also thought you’d like to know about a relatively new project involving using positive reinforcement to train medical surgeons.  The woman who started the program both Gene and I are certified in, Karen Pryor, has been instrumental in this project.  She’s now in her 80s and helping professionals understand why using positive reinforcement to train humans is an effective and respectful way to help humans learn new things!