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Well-Trained Pets Are Just a Click Away

Filed in - Fundamentals
by Laura Mahoney

Originally published in the Times Picayune, December 16, 2004

Does your dog look at you cockeyed when you ask him to sit? Does your cat use your couch as a scratching post? If you answered yes, treat yourself to a clicker kit for Christmas.

Clicker training is all the rage, and it really works. For many years, clickers or whistles were used to train marine mammals. Punishment, our typical method for training others, is futile when working with giant animals that cannot be physically controlled.

One of the founders of clicker training, Karen Pryor, defines the technique as "a science-based system for teaching behavior with positive reinforcement. You use a marker signal to tell the animal when it's doing the action that will pay off."

Many years ago, Pryor wrote the book Don't Shoot the Dog, the most referenced book on positive reinforcement training in the industry. She actually wrote it to help people train other people. Pryor wants to help parents get to a place where they "never have to yell at a child again."

"Punishment is not the way to get things done," she said.

Shaping behaviors through positive reinforce is a mind-bending experience. We are accustomed to rewarding good results and punishing mistakes. In clicker training, you watch for the behavior you're seeking, mark the instant it happens with a click, and pay off with a treat.

"You focus on building behavior, not stopping behavior. Instead of yelling at the dog for jumping up, you click it for sitting," Pryor said. "Instead of kicking the horse to make it go, you click it for walking. Then, click by click, you ‘shape' longer sits, or more walking, until you have the final results you want. Once the behavior is learned, you keep it going with praise and approval, and save the clicker and treats for the next new thing you want to train."

To practice your skills, have fun by making clicker training a family activity. One family member can be the trainee while the rest of the family decides what they want to train. Each time the person gets closer to what the family is seeking, click to reward. Your trainee will soon be demonstrating the behavior you set out to teach.

To get started, you can order a clicker starter kit from Pryor, or look for clickers and information at your favorite pet store. Pryor's training works with dogs, horses, cats, birds, and nearly anything else that likes to receive positive reinforcement for a job well done.

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