How to correctly use a clicker or marker

23 April 2018

Have you ever been flicking through Facebook and have come across a video of a dog riding a skateboard better than you ever could? Or putting their favourite toy bear in a pram and pushing it along? Then after the video has finished, you wonder, “I wish my dog could do that!”. Well, the good news is, with a little bit of time, they probably can!

Last month we covered how to install a marker such as a clicker or verbal cue with your dog so that you can start guiding and shaping their behaviour. If you followed the steps outlined in our last article and your dog has clearly made the connection between the marker and the reward, you are ready to start using it to train your dog to do amazing things!

Using a clicker or similar ‘bridging stimulus’ to precisely link behaviour to reward has been used since the 1940’s and has been used to effectively and humanely train animals of all different species to perform an incredible list of tasks. The theory behind the method is that if the marker is used at the precise time that the behaviour is exhibited, the animal can pinpoint exactly what they need to repeat in order to get their reward.

For example, if you would like to train your dog to sit, you can slowly raise some food above their nose to guide their head up and naturally drop their bum to the ground. If you mark the exact moment that their bum touches the ground and then give them the reward immediately after, a link between the food and the sit position begins to form.

Though it isn’t required to use a clicker to teach your dog to sit, it does help speed up the process when using operant conditioning to train more complex tasks. We use a method of rewarding ‘successive approximations’, or baby-steps, that slowly become the desired behaviour.

An example of this would be to teach your dog to retrieve and return an item to you. In order to do this, we would reward the dog at these ‘successive approximations’ so we can slowly teach the dog to perform an advanced task.

We would start with the item, let’s say a dumbbell, sitting in the middle of the room:

  • Click when the dog moves close to the dumbbell
  • Click when the dog touches the dumbbell with their nose
  • Click only when the dog touches the middle of the dumbbell with their nose
  • Click when the dog mouths the middle of the dumbbell
  • Click when the dog picks up the dumbbell
  • Click when the dog picks up the dumbbell and moves towards you
  • Click when the dog picks up the dumbbell, moves towards you and drops it

Depending on the dog, this process could take weeks, if not months to fully complete but I can guarantee that with one or two 10 minute training sessions per day, your dog will have a blast wracking their brain trying to figure out the puzzle and you will get a lot of enjoyment watching them figure it out.

The trick to it all is patience. If the dog is stuck on one of the steps, just withhold the click and reward, and they will try new things. If you can see them getting frustrated, reset the task and go back a few steps. You need to keep them motivated to keep going back and trying new things!

Try it at home, let us know how you go and if you get stuck anywhere, feel free to seek me out for a chat!

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