Clicker training is the popular term for the training or teaching method based on what we know about how living organisms learn.
Research has shown that any creature whether a dog, cat, dolphin, parrot, fish, horse, llama, or person is more likely to learn and repeat actions that result in consequences it desires and enjoys. So, clicker trainers provide consequences desired by their animal in exchange for actions or behaviours desired by their trainers.
We call these consequences rewards and the process is called reinforcement. Clicker training, therefore, is a positive-reinforcement-based system of training
Clicker trainers differ from traditional trainers in that they wait until the behaviour is well understood by the animal before using a command or cue. A cue is the name of a behaviour, such as sit, or a hand movement or other clear signal. Until the animal knows what the behaviour is, any name for it would be meaningless.
When the animal has been clicked several times for a behaviour, and then confidently repeats the behaviour, showing that it knows exactly what earns it a click and a reward, it is ready to learn the name of the behaviour. Clicker trainers call this introducing the cue.
To teach the animal the name of the behaviour, or the cue, the trainer says or signals the cue before the animal repeats the behaviour. After several repetitions, the trainer begins to click and reward when the animal does the behaviour, but only after the cue is given. No click is given if the animal does the behaviour without being given the cue first. The animal quickly learns to listen or watch for its cue, which tells it: If you do this behaviour now, you will get a click and earn a reward.
The trainer clicks at the moment the behaviour occurs: the horse raises its hoof, the trainer clicks simultaneously. The dog sits, the trainer clicks. Clicking is like taking a picture of the behavior the trainer wishes to reinforce. After taking the picture, the trainer gives the animal something it likes, usually a small piece of food but sometimes play, petting, or other rewards.
Very soon (sometimes within two or three clicks), an animal will associate the sound of the click with something it likes: the reward. Since it wishes to repeat that pleasurable experience, it will repeat the action it was doing when it heard the click.
Any behaviour can be trained with any animal following these three simple steps:
- Get the behaviour.
- Mark the behaviour.
- Reinforce the behaviour.