It’s not rocket science but, sure enough, it’s science. That may be the coolest thing about clicker training . There’s hard core science behind it. Okay maybe that’s the second coolest thing. Number one is how well it works.
So dial back to B.F. Skinner. He’s the first one who toyed with the idea of using secondary reinforcement to help animals (people too) learn. What’s that? Good question. But let’s look at first things first: primary reinforcement - the stuff that builds behavior. Usually primary reinforcement is something with a bit of biological drive behind it (think food, sex and survival). Learn to hunt; earn food. Get the courtship right; get the girl. Outsmart the tiger; live another day. Those are all important behaviors with strong primary reinforcement keeping them going. So, what about our dogs? Sit nicely; get your dinner. Learn a new trick; get some treats. Get it?
Now let’s turn to the secondary reinforcement. That’s anything that signals to the animal (or person) that the primary reinforcement is on the way. Sea mammal trainers use a high pitched whistle. Dolphin jumps the hoop; trainer blows the whistle; come get your fish. Game shows have their own version. Contestant answers the question; a bell or a siren sounds; and here’s the announcer with your prize package. Dog trainers use a clicker. Rover rolls over; trainer clicks as soon as it happens; Rover gets his bit of food. It’s called a secondary reinforcement because it isn’t the real deal (the primary). It signals or predicts the good stuff is on the way.
Why a clicker? There’s some evidence Skinner thought about using a cricket toy which is very similar to a modern clicker. But it wasn’t until much later that his students Marian and Keller Breland experimented clickers. Karen Pryor made them the industry standard in modern dog training.
Maybe the real question is: why click? The answer is super simple. It works. Clicking marks an exact behavior in time and reinforces it – just as if we’d given the treat (primary) at that exact moment in time. It’s like taking a picture of the thing you want your dog to do. Think about this. Your dog sits; you reach in your pocket for a treat; your dog stands to take the treat. He’s not sitting anymore when he gets the bit of food. Did you reinforce “sit” or “stand?” Hmm. Okay, now let’s say your dog sits; you click the moment he puts his bottom on the ground; then you give the bit of food. Now there’s no question. You reinforced “sit.” It’s like the click is the treat. There’s even some new evidence that the click is more stimulating to your dog than the actual treat. That’s cool too.
The other reason why we clicker train takes us right back to the beginning of this note. It’s science. I didn’t make it up. A bunch of people didn’t get in a room and decide it was the right way to train (it is though). It’s not a fad. It was hypothesized by smart men and women who studied behavior for a living. It was tested and re-tested and tested again until it was established in the scientific record as fact. It’s not something to believe in or not to believe in. It just is. All you have to do it check the evidence. Learn it; then try it. Make your own dog part of the evidence.