Clickers and Animal Training
Catherine J. Crawmer
Who needs a mechanical noise to train an animal? The answer is simple. You don’t need a clicker, whistle, buzzer or any other mechanical noise to train an animal. Can you train an animal with no mechanical noise and no verbal utterance at all? Yes! Can you train an animal in complete silence, giving only inaudible physical cues? Absolutely.
There is no magic in the noise put out by a hand held clicker toy or any other sound-producing device. So…………..what the heck is clicker training and what is everybody so excited about?
The clicker is simply a novel noise that is being used as an event marker. A whistle could be a marker as could a buzzer, a spoken word or noise, hand signal or body gesture. The clicker is currently an in vogue device being used as a marker in the process of training animals. Animals can be trained equally as well with any type of marker noise including a verbal sound or spoken word. The focus should be on positive reinforcement; beyond that it is just semantics.
Most of us use food at one time or another to train animals. You don’t need to train with food to use a marker but in the interests of simplicity I will go forth now with the premise that we are using food. Food is great! It’s motivating. But there are a couple of things wrong with it.
There is no one training animals that would argue with the fact that proper timing is imperative if one is going to make significant accomplishments training animals. If an animal executes something at a great distance there can be a slight or substantial delay in getting food reinforcement to him. If he is a very fast moving species or an animal moving very quickly it can be impossible to reward him at exactly the point we would like to. For instance, if we have an animal that has been hesitant to jump and then suddenly he does it, wouldn’t it be great to “pay” him at the moment of his takeoff? With the exclusive use of food or petting type rewards we can only reward him after he has landed. Can this be effective? Absolutely. Is it perfect timing? It is not.
What the clicker or any other event marker does is to pinpoint the exact second where the animal has done it, whatever it is. The marker, whichever type you choose to use, is first made important to the animal by pairing it with some reinforcement. We’re talking about food being the reinforcement now so I’ll just go with that. You would click and feed, click and feed, click and feed, or say “Good” and feed, “Good” and feed. Pick any marker you like. All you have to do is make a positive association with it to the point where the animal hears the marker and gets happy about it. Basically, when the animal hears, sees or feels the marker, depending on what marker you have chosen, he expects to eat. Some species can make this association with the marker in a few minutes some take longer. You have to do this basic work before you can make use of it.
After a few days, at the most no matter what species you are working with, you will click or whistle, or whatever, and the animal will stop what he is doing and come to you immediately for his reward. You have essentially established a communication with your animal that says, “You will be paid!” You have drawn the animal’s attention to a specific occurrence, behavior or “event”.
Let’s go back to the jumping animal. He wouldn’t jump. Maybe you had some trouble with it for whatever reason. Now suddenly he makes the jump and at the point of takeoff, while he is in the air, he hears his “You will be paid” signal. By the use of your marker you have effectively communicated to the animal what part of his action was the part that will get him paid. Yes, he has to land and you will feed him at that point. However, he knew he would be paid at the exact moment you wanted him to know it. What the marker has given you is a way to perfect timing.
Obviously, this is a simplified explanation of training an animal with an event marker. It is important to note that used in this context a clicker is NOT a cue to do something. Any audible, tactile, visual or olfactory stimulus can be used as a cue and any audible, tactile, visual or olfactory stimulus can be used as an event marker.
No piece of equipment or list of terminology makes one a competent animal trainer. Like any other professional, practitioners should be judged by the work they put forth. Obviously, if you are getting results that give you a happy and consistent working animal you are doing your job. The clicker or other event marker is just another tool in the toolbox of the progressive professional.
What Can A Trainer Learn From “Other” Species
Catherine J. Crawmer
Quite a bit can be learned from training no matter what species we are handling. The fact is that most people, including professionals, concentrate only on one species. Not only do they concentrate on one species but most are training for one specific purpose with that single species. Someone may be training a house cat to have him behave well in the home. Take that same trained house cat and get him to perform in the yard, in someone else’s house or in front of a crowd and you have a whole different set of training problems brought into the mix. Additional challenges are quickly seen when the trainer has a new set of criteria.
When people join clubs, computer elists or read training articles or books they commonly seek out people who agree with them. It certainly is not unique to training animals. We all feel a sense of camaraderie with those who agree with our own prospective. In these forums the information is likely limited, repetitious and coming from sources who have as their own base of information just this one philosophy, ideology or methodology.
At a certain level of experience it is wise to seek all the information possible from a source that interests you. Don’t forget anything you have learned but I recommend that you move on when the information tends to become repetitious. Seek out other ideas and purposefully listen to those who you do not agree with. Read their books, get on their elists and read their articles. Learn as much as you can about who they are, what they are doing and why they are doing it. Pay close attention to the results they are obtaining. More than likely you will learn something that you can use. If you cannot use it now, maybe you will someday, and if not with this animal, maybe another. At the very least you will be able to intelligently discuss, in an informed manner, what you agree or disagree with and why.
Don’t limit this process to your chosen species. Anybody who has trained any animal to do or not do something has training information. If that person is willing to tell me what he has learned I consider it a privilege that he will take the time to share it with me.
I have used information over the years that I never thought I would because I was faced with a unique situation or specific animal and something I had learned became unexpectedly appropriate and relevant.