Do you always have to use a clicker in dog training? That's a great question!
Many dog owners are hesitant to try a clicker in dog training for the simple fact that they don't feel like bringing a clicker along with them when they're out and about with their dogs.
Yet, many people are not aware of the fact that there is no need to always have to use the clicker for the simple fact that the use of the clicker can actually be discontinued at some point!
Actually, the correct wording would be the clicker *must* be discontinued at some point if we want to adhere to good training practices.
So for those folks addicted to using a clicker who are using it all the time for the same exact exercises over and over, that clicker must go "bye-bye" at some point.
To discontinue the use of the clicker in dog training, there's an exact procedure to follow so to successfully discontinue its use, but the good news is that the process is fairly easy.
Use of a Clicker in Dog Training
Clickers are noise-making tools that produce a distinctive clicking noise when the trainer presses on it.
Nowadays, there are several makes and models of clickers on the market, but they all share the fact that they produce a distinct clicking sound.
This clicking sound tells the dog something along the lines of "Bingo! You got it right, here comes a treat." The clicking noise therefore happens right the moment the dog performs the desired behavior.
Because the clicker bridges the gap between the behavior and the reward, all clicks must always be immediately followed by a treat.
For sake of comparison, the effect of the clicking noise might feel to a dog similar to the "ding, ding, ding" noise people hear in game shows when they give the correct answer and win a prize.
While the clicker in dog training works very well when we are training a new behavior as it pinpoints that exact moment in time when the behavior occurs, if we keep using the clicker once a dog is fluent in performing a behavior, its use is pretty much redundant.
This is because there's actually nothing really new happening and this may turn a training session dull.
An Exception to the Rule
As with many things in life, there is also an exception to the rule when it comes to clicker training.
The exception to the rule is when we're adding a new challenge to a behavior our dog knows well. In this case, we can temporarily re-introduce the clicker.
For example, if we've trained our dog to reliably sit, and therefore, stopped using the clicker, one day we may want to raise criteria and pinpoint faster sits versus the slower ones.
In this case, we would go back to using the clicker to mark/reward only the fast sits.
"At Clicker Expo, during lecture sessions, I sometimes see attendees repeatedly clicking and treating dogs just for lying down and being quiet, when the dog is already lying down and being quiet anyway. Using the click in this way, just to maintain behavior that's already been learned, may actually devalue the click." Karen Pryor
A Matter of Fluency
After a behavior is learned and becomes reliable, the use of the clicker should be discontinued. When is a dog's behavior considered reliable?
According to Paul Owens author of the book "The Dog Whisperer: A Compassionate, Nonviolent Approach to Dog Training: "If your dog responds 80 percent of the time on any one behavior, you should consider it reliable behavior.
If your dog gives you the behavior you are asking 90 percent of the time in different environments, that is considered very reliable"
This means we can still use the clicker when we morph our hand signal into the final one or when we introduce the verbal cue "sit "and we can still use it when we're introducing distractions (such as training in different places) just to confirm to the dog that he's still doing great despite these new added challenges, but afterward, it should become our goal to get the clicker out of the picture.
"Once the behavior is on cue, and dog will offer it willingly, fade the clicker"~ Melissa Alexander
What Can I use to Replace the Click?
After removing the clicker, the next obvious questions often is: "If I stop using the clicker, what can I use to replace the click?"
Various trainers use different methods and there doesn't seem to be a standard operating procedure.
Melissa Alexander suggests replacing the click with a verbal marker.
She claims: "A verbal marker isn't as precise as a clicker, but at this stage, the dog knows what's being reinforced. Consider the verbal marker a praise marker, letting the dog know that he did something reinforceable"
It's not a bad idea therefore to train a dog using a clicker for cutting-edge precision and using a marker such as "yes" for those times you don't have access to the clicker or simply don't need that precision the clicker can only give.
This way, when that time comes and you need to discontinue the clicker, you can easily replace it with the already familiar verbal marker. Now that you have a verbal marker and no longer a clicker, you are also free to move on to a variable schedule where you give treats randomly instead of every single time.
James O' Heare instead in the book: "The Science and Technology of Dog Training p. 149" suggests to use a release cue to replace the clicker. For example, in an exercise that uses duration such as a sit, we would replace the click with a release word such as "Okay." If the dog breaks the sit, then the owners should promptly reinforce it.
However, if the dog is hesitant to break the sit upon hearing the release cue "okay," owners can immediately (after saying "okay") prompt the dog to be released from the sitting position by perhaps waving their arms or enticing the dog to follow them. When the dog breaks the sitting position, he can then be rewarded.
" Once the learner knows what to do and when to do it, for many behaviors you don't need to click any more; a nod or a smile or a word can tell a dog he's doing fine." Karen Pryor
The Bottom Line
As seen, the clicker is a temporary tool used for pinpointing desired behaviors. Once the dog knows what's being asked to and performs the behavior reliably, the clicker should be discontinued.
Different trainers may use different methods as to when and how to start discontinuing its use.
During the process, the dog should be introduced to a permanent word or perhaps a nod or a smile, that can used to replace the clicking sound. This is also a good time to move from a continuous reinforcement schedule to a variable one.
Oh, and by the way, for those who call the process of discontinuing the clicker "fading the click" this term is technically incorrect. Fading means making something gradually smaller and smaller as we do when fading prompts. With the clicker, you either click or not, so it's not a suitable term for a marker signal, explains Karen Pryor.
Did you know? According to a study, dogs who were trained using a clicker to perform a specific target behavior took an average time of 36 minutes to perform the task, whereas dogs who very verbally conditioned dogs took an average of 59 minutes.
- The Dog Whisperer: A Compassionate, Nonviolent Approach to Dog Training, By Paul Owens, Norma Eckroate, Adams Media; 2 edition (February 12, 2007)
- The Science and Technology of Dog Training, by James O' Heare, Dogwise Publishing
- Clicker Solutions by Melissa Alexander, Frequently Asked Questions, retrieved from the web on July 3rd, 2016
- “Clicker Bridging Stimulus Efficacy.” Linday Wood. 2007. Master's thesis, Hunter College, New York.
- Karen Pryor Clicker Training, Fading the Click? retrieved from the web on July 3rd, 2016
- Clicker-training clickers come in various shapes and forms.Taken by Elf | Talk Sept 17 '04 - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons. Transfer was stated to be made by User:Syp. CC BY-SA 3.0