In order to be a good canine citizen, your pit bull needs to learn at least basic commands and manners. Now, there’s no question that pit bulls can be stubborn and headstrong.
They are also, however, quite sensitive. Due to your pit bull’s strong desire to please you, harsh corrections are not only entirely superfluous, they can have a detrimental effect on your relationship.
Enter clicker training, an increasingly popular teaching method that enables your pit bull to learn without coercion and punishment.
What Is Clicker Training
Clicker training is a highly effective training method and philosophy that’s based on the principles of behavioral science–specifically operant conditioning–and uses a clicker to mark desired behavior. If you’ve ever been to Sea World and wondered how dolphins and other marine mammals are taught to perform those amazing tricks, the answer is clicker training (the trainers use a whistle instead of a clicker as a marker, but the technique is identical).
During the past 10-15 years, clicker training has seen an enormous increase in popularity. The reasons for this are sevenfold:
- Clicker-trained dogs are active participants in the learning process; learning through trial and error, they become creative problem solvers extraordinaire.
- Clicker training is a fun game for dogs; ask a clicker-trained dog if he wants to “play clicker” and watch the response!
- Clicker-trained dogs are enthusiastic workers, happily and confidently offering the desired behaviors without fear or apprehension.
- Clicker training strengthens the bond between dog and trainer.
- Clicker-trained dogs learn faster, typically reducing training time by one-third, and retain lessons longer.
- Clicker training allows you to teach your dog highly complex commands and eliminate problematic behavior without force or physical punishment.
- Once you understand the behavioral principles underlying the method, you’ll be able to customize techniques for your particular dog and create entirely new techniques to teach just about anything you can think of.
Principles of Operant Conditioning
The theory of operant conditioning holds that behavior is learned based on the consequences the behavior elicits. To modify or “shape” behavior, operant conditioning relies on five major principles. It’s important to note that the terms “positive” and “negative” do not mean “good” and “bad” in this context; “positive” is used here to refer to adding something, while “negative” refers to removing something.
Similarly, “reinforcement” is any consequence that causes behavior to occur with increased frequency, while “punishment” refers to consequences that cause behavior to occur with decreased frequency.
Positive Reinforcement – Occurs when something pleasant is added to strengthen a behavior.
- Canine Example: Your dog comes when you call; you offer praise and a treat, increasing the likelihood that she will come the next time you call.
- Human Example: Your child worked hard and got an A on his math test; you reward him with a new video game, increasing the likelihood that he will study hard for the next test.
Negative Reinforcement – Occurs when something unpleasant (called an aversive) is removed to strengthen a behavior.
- Canine Example: Your dog is wearing a shock collar and ignoring your call; you administer a shock that is stopped as soon as your dog starts heading back toward you.
- Human Example: You tell your child that he will not have to mow the lawn for a month if he works hard and gets an A on his math test.
Positive Punishment – Occurs when something unpleasant is added to weaken a behavior.
- Canine Example: Your dog starts pulling when walking on lead; you give the leash a sharp tug to administer a correction.
- Human Example: Your child talks back to you; you spank your child to teach that talking back is not acceptable.
Negative Punishment – Occurs when something pleasant is removed to weaken a behavior.
- Canine Example: Your dog sees a canine friend and starts pulling on her lead to reach her friend faster; you turn around and walk back 10 steps every time she starts pulling.
- Human Example: Your child talks back to you; you take away his TV privileges for a week.
Extinction – Occurs when offering no response whatsoever weakens a behavior. Most effective when combined with positive reinforcement of an alternate, desirable behavior.
- Canine Example: You are trying to teach your dog not to scratch your door when she wants to be let in, so you ignore her when she scratches (extinction) and let her in right away, offering treats and praise, when she is waiting patiently (positive reinforcement).
- Human Example: Your child is throwing a tantrum to get your attention; you ignore your child until he calms down.
Clicker training is 65-75% positive reinforcement, 20-30% extinction, and 5-10% negative punishment. Negative reinforcement and positive punishment aren’t used at all. There are a number of reasons for this, but the primary one is that clicker training depends on dogs being willing to experiment with a range of responses and behaviors, allowing you to reinforce the exact action you’re looking for.
Dogs who are punished for making mistakes are understandably reluctant to risk experimenting with new behaviors, making negative reinforcement and positive punishment techniques wholly incompatible with clicker training.
How Clicker Training Works
The inexpensive little device called a clicker functions as what is known as a secondary or conditioned reinforcer. The primary reinforcer can be anything your dog will work for: yummy treats, a round of tug with a favorite toy, praise, the opportunity to do something he really wants to do (such as greeting a canine friend in the above example), etc.
Why can’t you just use the primary reinforcer by itself? In a word: precision. The clicker enables you to mark the behavior you want the split second it is occurring, and that’s critical. By clicking, you’re communicating to your dog, “What you’re doing right now, that’s the behavior I’m looking for!”
There’s also the matter of consistency. A click always sounds exactly the same; verbal praise, on the other hand, can vary greatly depending on the tone and volume of your voice.
Here’s how it works:
- Encourage your dog to perform the behavior you’re looking for or capture the behavior as your dog offers it on her own. The latter is obviously limited to naturally occurring behaviors such as sitting, lying down, running toward you, etc. The former is accomplished with a variety of techniques including targeting, luring, molding, and mimicking. Complex behaviors–such as an obedience competition quality “drop on recall” or ringing a bell when she wants to go outside–are broken down into small, manageable chunks and reinforced one step at a time. This is called shaping.
- In the precise moment your dog performs the behavior you’re looking for, mark it with a click. Your dog now knows that what she is doing pleases you and that she is about to be rewarded. Added repetitions will increase her certainty of exactly which behavior you want.
- Follow the click with whatever you’re using as a primary reinforcer. Food is the most popular reinforcer not only because most dogs will work for delicious treats, but also because food rewards can be consumed quickly, allowing you to get in lots of repetitions in very little time. And as we all know, practice makes perfect.
- Once your dog is offering the final behavior with reasonable reliability (somewhere in the neighborhood of 75-90%; the more complex the behavior, the more reliable he needs to be), you add a cue. The cue is a verbal command and/or hand signal that will be used to elicit the behavior in the future. The reason we don’t add the cue earlier is simple: Until your dog knows what behavior you’re looking for, the verbal command will be absolutely meaningless to him. It’s always amazing when someone tells their brand new puppy to sit, somehow expecting the dog to know what the word means. Additionally, we want to prevent the dog from associating the cue with an unfinished or otherwise imperfect version of the behavior.
Clicker training is ideal for your new pit bull puppy or adult rescue as well as for dogs who’ve already been “traditionally trained.” Whether you are trying to teach basic obedience commands, preparing to compete in agility or other canine sporting events, or looking to eliminate problem behavior, clicker training lets you do it all without coercion, intimidation, and harsh corrections.