What is Clicker Training ?

What is Clicker Training? Part 1

With so many people now clicker training there is no longer a clear one-size-fits-all definition of what this means.  People use the term “clicker training” to mean so many different things.  Some people use the click as a keep going signal.  For others it is linked always with a reinforcer.  For some it is simply one of the many “tools” they use to modify the behavior of their animals.  Others see it as the framework under which they organize all their training.  If you are new to clicker training, these different approaches can be very confusing.  What approach do you try first?  Whose methods should you follow?
Think of it like going to the grocery store to buy some butter for a new brownie recipe you want to try out.  At the grocery store you’ll have several choices. There’s salted and unsalted, organic, whipped, even butter from sheep’s milk instead of cow’s.  There is also a whole array of margarines that are packaged to look just like butter.  If you don’t know the difference, you might well end up buying the margarine because it costs less.  But when you make your brownies, you’ll be disappointed.  They aren’t anything like the wonderful brownies your friend made.  When you ask her what her secret is, she tells you she uses only real ingredients – real butter, not the butter look alike, along with fresh farm-raised eggs and organic flour.
Clicker training is the same.  You want to use real ingredients that are well-grounded in learning theory.  With so much being presented about clicker training on the internet, it is sometimes hard to tell what you are getting.  Because there are so many different versions of clicker training emerging, I thought it would be useful to outline how I define and use it.
Simple Definitions
Let’s begin with Karen Pryor’s definition.   Karen Pryor is the author of “Don’t Shoot the Dog”, and “Reaching the Animal Mind”.  She is one of the early pioneers in the use of marker signals.  She defines clicker training as applied operant conditioning in which a marker signal is paired with a positive reinforcer.  This is a good start.  It describes the process we use in the training. When our learner does something we like, we mark that with a distinctive signal which is then paired with something the learner will actively work to gain.  The marker signal gives the learner very precise information about what he did that has earned reinforcement.  This makes it easier for him to offer the behavior again in order to get more of the reinforcer.  Adding in the marker signal takes a lot of frustrating guess work out of the learning process.  When it is consistently paired with things the LEARNER wants, YOU get more of the behavior you want.  It’s a win-win situation for both of you.
This is a good starting point, but for me clicker training is much more than this procedural definition.  Clicker training is a reflection of my core beliefs about animals and the relationship that I want to have with them.  It is the “umbrella” under which I organize all my training.  It includes procedures and lesson plans, but it is grounded in science and built on a solid bedrock of ethics.  
It is a detailed, complete training program that can take a horse from his very first interactions with people, through his early training, his start under saddle, and on into his performance work.  It is used to teach beautiful balance that helps to keep horses sound. It carries on throughout the life of the horse, helping the handler to maintain lessons already mastered and to teach new skills.   Through each stage in a horse’s life, clicker training is there to enhance the relationship.  It provides clear communication for our performance horses, playtime for our family companions, and enrichment for our equine friends as they enter their geriatric years.
All this means that clicker training is not simply a “tool” I use.  I view it as a short hand term that refers to a way of being around horses. It also reflects how I conduct myself more generally.  As a clicker trainer:
  • I focus on the behavior I want – not the unwanted behavior.  This is the major keys-to-the-kingdom hallmark of clicker training.  I’m not trying to correct unwanted behavior.  I focus on what I want my learner TO DO.  
  • I understand that I can’t ask for something and expect to get it on a consistent basis unless I have gone through a teaching process to teach it to my learner.  This is my safety net.  It keeps me from over facing my learner.  Instead of assuming my learner understands what I want, I go through a teaching process that fills in any holes he may have.
  • If my learner fails to give me a desired response, instead of escalating pressure or punishing him for his failure to respond, I break the training down into smaller steps. 
  • I recognize that while punishment can be an effective management tool, it has significant negative consequences.  I actively choose to avoid the deliberate use of punishment throughout the whole of my relationship with my learners.
  • I also recognize that trial and error learning can be frustrating.  Using extinction processes where I wait out my learner while he tries different options is a learning strategy that I try to avoid.  Instead I look for creative ways to help my learner to be successful.  This involves using a variety of teaching strategies, breaking my training down into very small steps, and setting up the environment for success.
  • I know that it takes time and experience to become a skillful shaper.  I know that everyone who explores this approach to training will make mistakes.  As we gain experience, as we learn from our horses and from other trainers, we will find better ways to train.  I very much subscribe to an expression I learned from the poet Maya Angelou: “When I was young, I did the best I could.  When I knew better, I did better.”  That is a good mantra to keep in mind for all our interactions with our learners.  The sharing of the discoveries we make is part of the enjoyment of clicker training. The intent is not to set the training “in stone”, but to keep evolving the process for the good of our learners.
Note throughout this I have used the term learner, not animal.  As a clicker trainer, I want to treat people and animals with the same regard for their emotional well being.  I recognize that getting it right with people can be much more challenging, but if I am using positive reinforcement with my animals, I should also treat people in the same constructive way.
So how does all this work?  Find out in the next Installment – coming soon!

Alexandra Kurland
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