Positive reinforcement clicker training is not only fun for both handler and animal student, but incredibly effective at building confidence, strong and trusting relationships between humans and animals, and skills so your animal can solve problems independently of you.
To understand more about this new approach to training your animals, let’s first examine the “old way” of training animals. (This section is provided to help crossover trainers understand how different positive reinforcement clicker training is from aversive training. We understand most of you who approach us for training would not use this approach — but sometimes, it helps to understand why you are not attracted to it. We’ll put it in words for you (and research, too!).)
The Old Way of Training
A common way of training animals used to be based on “aversives.” These were techniques such as pulling, pushing, yelling, constraining an animal, using body language that creates fear, making noises that scare or intimidate (such as “ah-ah” or other words/sounds that are delivered to startle or punish an animal), putting animals in uncomfortable positions, pulling/jerking on halters, collars, or any other restraint devices, and even using equipment that animals know will cause pain or discomfort if they resist (such as choke collars, shock collars, vibration collars, prong collars, bits, and rope halters).
When aversives were used to train, the animals learned to avoid and escape situations that created discomfort, pain, or fear. Even the presence of a human caused stress to animals – which they either tried to avoid by moving away or by stopping what they were doing.
One of the saddest consequences of training with aversives was the sensitive animal who lost confidence and became afraid to even try something new due to a fear of failure (because failure was punished with aversive training). Parvene Farhoody – an animal behaviorist who uses positive reinforcement methods – describes the act of “no action” to avoid aversives as a commonly misunderstood consequence of the old way of training:
Very often, … the animal learns to stop doing things completely. This can lead to “suppression of behavior.” Sadly, people may consider an animal that remains still to be exhibiting “good behavior” rather than exhibiting fear, which might be a more accurate description of the stillness that results after punishment-based techniques are used.
Another consequence of using aversives to train animals was the animal who became overly fearful and continually felt stressed around people. This, too, can be commonly misunderstood. Often, for example, people promoted the aversive approach to training by commenting on how “light” a horse or dog is – not realizing that the animal’s sensitivity was based on fear that they’ll be punished (emotionally or physically) if they don’t obey.
Fortunately the use of aversives to train animals is rapidly becoming a method of the past. Organizations with strong footholds in the animal care community are publicly advocating for positive reinforcement training. For example, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviorists has put out two position statements supporting positive reinforcement training.
The first position statement addresses the unscientific and aversive approach to animal training based on dominating an animal physically and emotionally:
The second position statement addresses the negative issues of using punishment when training animals:
A new method of training – based entirely on encouragement, fun, and rewards – is replacing the old and proving to be much more effective. Let’s learn more about it!
The New Way of Training
Positive reinforcement training is based on a method where – after a behavior occurs – something an animal enjoys is added to the animal’s environment in order to encourage the repetition of a behavior. When this happens, an animal associates a behavior (such as sitting if one is a dog) with something positive (a treat or a game of tennis ball) that reinforces the behavior (the dog is likely to want to sit again).
Since positive reinforcement trainers will not use any aversives to solicit behavior, they need to figure out how to encourage the behavior in the first place. This is where the excitement truly begins — for many cutting edge trainers believe the sky is the limit!
Positive reinforcement trainers have discovered they can capture behaviors (wait for them to happen randomly), encourage behaviors (for example, put an object in front of an animal and see if they’ll reach out and touch it), shape behaviors (start with the slightest attempt and build), and even teach an animal to do a behavior by mimicking another animal or even their person. They’ve also found that once animals associate training sessions with rewards and fun, they will start experimenting and offering behaviors when encouraged by the trainer.
The next step for the trainer is to let the animal know when the behavior, or attempt at a behavior, is what the trainer wants.
The trainers do this by using a marker signal at the precise moment a desired behavior occurs.
A marker signal can be a whistle, a gesture, a word, or a “clicker” (which is now probably one of the most common marker signals used by positive reinforcement trainers). The trainer’s job is to help the animal learn that – when he or she hears or sees a signal – he or she just did something the trainer will reward.
To help the animals associate the marker signal with the desired behavior (in other words, to help a dog understand that a “click” sound they heard is matched to something they just did – such as sit down), many positive reinforcement trainers start with a game of “target” to teach the relationship between the marker signal (“you got it!”) and the reward (“thanks!”). The trainers will present an interesting object in front of an animal. When the animal reaches out to touch the object, the trainer “clicks” then presents a reward to the animal.
The animals pick up the relationship quite fast – often within a few repetitions. Once the behavior becomes predictable, the trainer then uses positive reinforcement methods to put the behavior on “cue” (so, for example, the animal associates the word “touch” with touching a target).
An overriding goal of positive reinforcement training is to encourage an animal to think for himself or herself and feel good while doing this. If for any reason the animal becomes confused or frustrated when learning a new behavior, the trainer steps back to a behavior the animal is familiar with. There, the trainer will build up the animal’s confidence by asking for the familiar behavior, rewarding the animal, and when the animal is comfortable again, the trainer will take even smaller steps to help encourage a new behavior.
The positive reinforcement training method of using a signal matched with a reward makes training so clear for every animal. Instead of trying to figure out what to avoid or do in the midst of aversives that could escalate at any time, the animal trained with positive reinforcement has time to think, the freedom to try without punishment, and the fun of receiving rewards during every training session.
One can go as far as one wants with positive reinforcement training. Animal enthusiasts can learn the basics to help teach their animals household or farmyard behaviors. Trainers wanting to help animals who are fearful, aggressive, shut-down – or even animals who are expected to perform complicated tasks like being guide dogs or horses – can learn the more comprehensive nuances of positive reinforcement. Fortunately, there are instructors who have multiple decades of experience in these methods. It’s a great time to be learning from these masters!
If you’d like to find a positive reinforcement trainer to help you and your animal, the next section will provide some guidelines.
How to Be Certain Your Trainer is Using Positive Reinforcement
Parvene Farhoody provides guidelines for finding a true positive reinforcement trainer on her website, “Behavior Matters:”
It is very popular for trainers today to say that they teach using positive reinforcement. After all, these are the “politically correct” words to use today. However, many trainers are still practicing punishment techniques and using the terms “positive” and “reward.” As caretaker of your companion animal, you want to be sure that these are not empty words that merely hide the punishment at the core of the trainer’s techniques..
Whenever a trainer adds anything unpleasant to the environment (intimidating body language, yelling, making upsetting noises, using a collar to put any pressure on a dog’s neck, moving the animal physically by leash or hand), the trainer is not, by definition, using positive reinforcement to teach. If a trainer, or you, say “good dog” or give the dog a treat after using intimidating body language, saying no, or giving a pull on a collar, then it is not positive reinforcement that is teaching the dog. The dog is actually learning by avoiding something unpleasant!…
A good way to be sure a trainer is teaching using positive reinforcement is to watch what is happening! Forget about what is being said. Watch, and ask yourself: Is the animal doing a behavior to get something it wants? If so, is this thing they want added to the environment after the behavior occurs? When taking apart the mechanisms at work in the teaching process, this is a good place to start.
Mountain Hooves & Paws
At Mountain Hooves & Paws, Gene and Kinna Ohman-Leone use Karen Pryor’s approach to clicker training for all animals. They feel this is the most positive and animal-friendly clicker training method.