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To Train Your Pet, Just Point and Click

Filed in - Fundamentals
Originally published in the Akron Beacon Journal

Old-fashioned clicker new school of training

You to your cat: "Einstein, I like it when you lounge on the pink quilt on the black leather chair. You look so handsome there. You're such a good boy."

Einstein: "Well, thanks. I thought that might please you. Why don't you toss me another one of those tuna puffs? I bet I can get you to give me one if I touch my nose to your magic wand."

Those fanciful exchanges are not as unlikely as you may think. They embody the essence of clicker training, according to Boston author, trainer, and scientist Karen Pryor. Clear communication is what clicker training is all about.

If you grew up Catholic, you may associate clickers with Mass. Nuns used them to teach schoolchildren when to stand, kneel, and sit during the service. Well, the clickers of yesteryear have a new look and function—as interpreters.

They help you get a dialogue going with your animals. With a clicker, you can target your cat to go happily in and out of his carrier, come when called, play without biting or scratching and walk on a leash, said Pryor. Similar gains can be made with pooches, horses, birds and even humans; and the training doesn't cost a lot of money or take a lot of time.

"Clicker training is a system of practical and effective reinforcement-based learning. I got involved as a dolphin trainer in the '60s. Dolphin training is science-based and I got very excited about it because I could see it would work with other animals and it didn't involve any kind of punishment."

Tips from the dolphins

Dolphin training techniques didn't make the leap to dog lovers for obvious reasons. The missing element was Pryor, who explained these strange concepts to the general public in her book, Don't Shoot the Dog. It is the bible of positive-reinforcement training, also known as operant conditioning, which is the science behind clicker training.

"We're talking about deliberate learning. The term I like to use is reinforcement-based training," she said. It is unlike the Pavlovian response because it is voluntary. Pavlovian responses are involuntary.

" Don't Shoot the Dog wasn't about dogs, it was about people and how to change human behavior without all the negative ways. The dog trainers got interested and that led to my spending a lot of time teaching and writing books for dog owners who don't know what the dolphin trainers all know, that positive reinforcement works."

Since then, Pryor has written many scientific papers, seven books and become an internationally lauded authority on clicker training. She is the CEO of Karen Pryor Clickertraining, which takes ClickerExpos around the world. Her books and clickers are widely available in pet supply stores and on the internet at www.clickertraining.com .

A clicker and one of Pryor's books would make a wonderful Christmas present for devoted cat and dog owners. Think of clicker training as an embellishment of an already good thing, the whipped cream on the sundae. Any training at all enhances the human-animal bond. Clicker training will make it deeper.

How clickers work

Let's take a closer look.

Clickers provide a signal to mark a desired behavior in real time and then follows that signal with a motivating reward, said Pryor. "You need some kind of signal to tell him exactly when he does the right thing and pay him with a treat. The voice is too fuzzy and takes too long," she said.

By the time I say "Good boy, Shakespeare," my cat has long forgotten our little interaction and is thinking about a fishing trip in the Bahamas.

"You can click the moment your dog looks at you or pricks up his ears. What he's doing at the moment of the click is what he is getting paid for. Even puppies understand this right away."

The clicker is a bridging stimulus. It means that food or reward is coming. Shakespeare understands precisely which action earned the click, then I reinforce that by giving him a pea-sized piece of a tuna puff as a reward. Click, reward. Click, reward.

The magic wand I mentioned in the beginning of this story begins as your finger but ultimately becomes a target. If you put a pencil or finger one or two inches in front of your cat, he will probably touch his nose to it. When he does, click and reward. Then get him to follow your finger—the target—to places you want him to go. Click and reward. Soon, you can "target" your cat to move in and out of carriers, on and off veterinary tables and furniture and the like. When he's responsive, you won't need the click and reward anymore.

Your cat will soon be performing desired behaviors to get you to give him treats.

"Just teaching your cat some clicking things will help him feel more confident," said Pryor. "Make it easy for him. It might take him two or three times, but he'll realize he's getting you to click. Then you can target him up a stool and down again. My cat does kitchen Olympics."

You will soon make sense to your cat. "You'll see their social behavior begin to develop. I take volunteers in shelters and pass out Popsicle sticks and we teach them to target. It starts with one sniff. This is the way to break through the apathy. Eight of 10 cats will do it right away. It's a nice thing for those cats, a game they can play that doesn't involve touching them and making them do stuff (they don't want to do)."

What clickers won't do

Here are a few things clicker training is not:

  • Clickers are not squeaky toys intended to get an animal's attention. If used in that way, they will simply be ignored along with all the other silly noises in an average day.
  • Clickers can not replace your praise. The clicker tells the animal he has done the right thing and pay is forthcoming. After you have used a clicker for a while, you can replace the sound with a word of praise or even a smile or nod and drop the treat.
  • A clicker is not a dog call. Used that way, it will quickly become meaningless. If you call the dog with the clicker and he doesn't come, you're telling him to stay over there and ignore you.
  • Clicker training is not a fad that comes and goes. It is a training technique that is rapidly overtaking traditional methods in the handling and management of all kinds of animals, including cats, dogs, horses, bird and zoo animals. It is also being used in human applications such as physical therapy and sports training.

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