One of my colleagues and I are having a conversation about the state of affairs in the world of animal training- specifically we are talking about dogs. We both have reached the conclusion that hearing about misconstruction, inhumane methods of training in the name of helping animals wears really heavy on us. We agree to remove ourselves from conversations be it social media forums and the like where we feel we cannot teach gentle, and yes, effective methods, and save our “souls” for those dogs and people that we can help.
Later on I am reflecting on our conversation, one that I have had in my own mind too many times to accurately remember. The instances of people working with animals using principle and methodologies based on the behavioral sciences, with an emphasis on reinforcing animals for what we want instead of scaring, hurting or the like, abound. It’s a revolution! One of those methodologies that is taking the world of animal training in forward leaps and bounds is clicker training.
Clicker training is not a new modality- far from it. Karen Pryor, renowned marine mammal trainer and one of the foremost champions of the use of the clicker, was already working with whales, dolphins and the like with whistles in the early seventies.
Whistles apparently are easier for marine mammals to hear as they navigate the waters of their pens or even in open waters than a clicker, but they serve the same function.
Sure, it does not mean that if a trainer does not work with a clicker that good, effective and humane training is not possible. However, the clicker (or whistle or my less-favorite the word “yes”) all serve as indicators to the animal we are training that a reinforcer is coming its way. They are in effect: Event Markers. The event being the reinforcer.
The clicker by itself and before it has been classically conditioned to mean something good is coming your way, means nothing to the animal. But once it has been paired with reinforcers it is in my professional opinion, like no other tool in breaching our communication with the animal. BTW, clickers training also know as TAG (Teaching with Acoustic Guidance) has proven to be highly successful in helping individuals with Autism (spectrum).
When used properly (and I guess we can say that of any tool of methodology), the trainer can with incredible accuracy relay the message to the dog (or horse, mammal, cat, etc.) that that tiny behavior – yes sometimes what we need to reinforce is barely perceptive to the human eye, is what we are looking for and that it has earned the animal a reinforcer. Yeah!
As I am working with a client’s dog last week, she mentioned that I had not once spoken to her dog one word and yet, she was able to follow my directions and as a result was being paid for it. I responded: That’s right! I don’t have to say much to her, I am using the clicker!