DEAR CONFOUNDED: Clickers are small, hand held, gadgets that produce a controlled click sound when pressed. A Nobel prize winner in the early 20th century, Ivan Pavlov, was studying the digestive system using dogs. He discovered, quite by accident, that the test subject dogs would begin to drool the moment they saw people in lab coats. The dogs had made the association that the lab coat meant they were about to be fed. As his studies progressed he used automatically feeding devices that rang a bell before dropping food. The bell began to cause the dogs to drool! Entire courses are taught in college on this subject and it remains one of the most influential discoveries in psychology today.
Basically, one aspect of Canine Learning Theory says that we can take a sound that means absolutely nothing to the dog and with consistent and repetitive actions teach the dog that this sound is a predictor of food. Classical Conditioning studies prove that eventually, after a certain amount of times, the dog will associate the previously unimportant sound with food. The sound will actually become as important to the dog as the food!
Let’s say you are sitting in your living room quietly reading a book. A sound much like a sudden snap of a tree branch happens. This is not a sound that occurs in your home so it instantly gets your attention. A $100 bill materializes out of nowhere and floats down to the floor. I am sure this would get you and your family really excited and chatting for hours, if not days, about how this could happen. A week later the sound happens again. Now this sound has a little bit of meaning due to past experience. Your heart will jump with hopeful excitement. Maybe another $100 bill will arrive? And sure enough, here it comes, floating out of nowhere. It won’t take very many times for this to become a rule and highly anticipated by your family. The sound now has value.
In recent years, dog trainers have discovered that Marker Training is highly effective with dogs. The clicker sound is the Marker that the dog learns, through experience, means a reward is coming. Most dogs enjoy the game of performing actions to cause the Marker sound to happen, leading to getting a food reward. Eventually, when all the stages of training have been correctly implemented, the dog will frequently work for just the sound of the clicker because it has become as valuable to him as the food.
You may now ask, why do we need to do this instead of just handing the dog a treat? Another aspect of Canine Learning Theory has shown us that dogs cannot associate a reward or punishment with a specific action unless the reward/punishment occurs within 3 to 5 seconds of that action. So if your dog is right in front of you when you ask him to sit you can hand him a treat instantly when he complies. The treat reinforces his action of sitting and makes him want to do it again in the future. What if your dog is all the way across the yard? Your reward treat cannot reach his mouth within 3 to 5 seconds but his Marker sound can reach his ears instantly. If he has been taught to value the Marker sound it is the same thing, in his mind, as having been given a treat.
My company, California Canine, prefers to use verbal Markers rather than clickers. We find we can be even more specific to the dog and the human doesn’t have the burden of always having to keep a clicker in hand. Markers can be any sound that can be reproduced consistently. The human then just has to learn to have good timing with making those sounds.
Dierdra McElroy is a graduate of Texas A&M University and is an Animal Behaviorist specializing in canines. If you have questions or concerns about the pets in your house, email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.