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Want to know all about Operant Conditioning a/k/a Clicker Training


What is Operant Conditioning?   For our purposes, let’s call it operant conditioning.  Any other name (and there are many) they are just take-offs of the same name. It all means the same thing, a philosophy of training which was created by world renowned behaviorist B. F. Skinner (1904-1990). In 1938, Mr. Skinner penned his famous work “The Behavior of Organisms.” This work was the beginning of the science of operant conditioning. There are many students of Skinner who do not realize that his works were not simply an application of animal behavior, but were of benefit to human behavior as well.  To that extent, in 1957 he published “Verbal Behavior.” This lesser known work was based totally on his prior work in 1938, which interwove the principals of operant conditioning techniques with the rudiments of human language. To try and explain all of the scientific terms, components, and theory of this fascinating subject is far beyond the scope of this paper.

And in reality, all of that sophisticated jargon is not necessary for you to learn the best way to communicate with your dog. So in simple layman’s terms, what operant conditioning is going to mean to you is just this rule… “An Animal (or person) who executes a behavior and is rewarded for that behavior is more likely to repeat that behavior.”  The reward which caused the subject to repeat the behavior is called reinforcement, but more specifically, a positive reinforcement. Realizing that in operant conditioning there is also negative reinforcements along with positive and negative punishments and extinguishment behaviors.  These terms simply put are the cause and effect results of certain actions.  But we are not going to use the negative and punishment aspects of conditioning.  Our focus is solely based only on positive motivators of our dogs. Now it gets a bit more complex. Everyone has heard of Pavlov’s Dogs, where the dogs would salivate when they heard a bell.  That’s not exactly how it started. Actually it started when Pavlov’s dogs would start to drool when they saw the handlers getting ready to feed them, giving Pavlov the credit he was rightfully due. He was the one who noticed the drooling behavior and made the correlation between handlers and drool. This correlation intrigued Pavlov.

How could a visual occurrence result in a physical reaction in the dog’s body, mainly drool? Now he could not train the dogs to drool on command, but he did figure out what it took get the same behavior. That’s when he raised the bar and started experimenting with the bells and the rest as they say is history. This automatic response to a given a stimulus is called “classical conditioning.” We humans are famous for our biochemistry causing reflexive responses to stimulus. Now I know what you are thinking. What does classical conditioning have to do with getting my dog to behave? I was just getting to that. Now it’s a given, that hearing the bell caused a reaction in the dogs. If that’s the case, would anything else given enough exposure cause the same biochemical reaction? Of course it would, what about using a clicker, the little kid’s toy? It’s just a piece of metal strip in a rectangular plastic case. The metal strip has a groove for your thumb and when you push it and then release, the metal makes a sort of clicking sound.  If you don’t know what I am talking about, ask any kid. Now what if we instead of using Pavlov’s bell, we would click our clicker and then give our dog a treat to eat? Don’t you think that if we did that enough times, that would certainly cause an association in your dog’s mind between click = treat? This first step of operant conditioning training using classical conditioning with the clicker, to get the dog to associate, ‘hey that clicking sound brings food.’ But we are not going to stay in classical mode very long, because as soon as puppy catches on and realizes, ‘hey, I must have done something and that something must have been good, because the moment I did it I heard click and I know that means. I get a treat.

And then when I repeat that thing I did before, bang. I get another click, which resulted in my getting another treat. When that realization happens in puppy’s mind, it now has magically become operant conditioning.  The difference being one is reflexive (classical) and one is a deliberate action (operant). So that means that training with operant conditioning results in deliberate behavior and training with classical conditioning results in a reflexive habit. Clickers have been around for ages, hardcore trainers call them a bridge, because they bridge the behavior to the reward (reinforcement). Other people call it a marker (Marker Training) because it “marks the behavior.” This way, puppy learns that ‘whatever I am doing the second I hear that click, (think mark) I am getting paid with a treat.’***(see note) Some people do away with the clicker altogether, and just a bridge or mark with a sound or word, instead of the clicker, a word something like “good,” or “nice.” It really does not matter what word you use, puppy doesn’t care. All puppy cares about is “word = treat.”  I personally do not like using a word as my bridge. I prefer using a clicker. My logic being that the clicker will never confuse my dog with what action it did to get the reward. In any given training session, puppy may associate the word with a different action. And if that misunderstanding happens, I am in trouble, because now I have to start over and try to retrain the behavior I was looking for. The clicker has a unique sound like nothing else and puppy has never heard that sound anywhere else and at no other time. That sound is only heard by puppy when you can definitely sound it to match the action with the reward. But hey, if you like using a word instead of a clicker go for it. I certainly am not going to cause a disruption in your training, or say you’re doing it wrong, or that your dog will never get trained.

To each his or her own. I would never fault anyone or say something is wrong, just for the sake of splitting hairs. So to recap, you should now understand that you click the moment behavior occurs. The dog sits, click and treat. Another way (mush less scientific) is to just think of the click as a promise you make to doggy. When I click, I promise you that a treat is on its way.  Never ever lie to your dog about giving it its treat after it hears the click. (There are some exceptions to that rule, but they have nothing to do with you training your dog, right now.) There is a saying “you get what you click, not what you want.” What that means is timing is everything. (That’s not an original line.) In other words puppy sits and then quickly gets up and on the upward movement of the puppy’s bottom is when you click and then treat. Now in your mind all is well, puppy sat and I clicked, but to puppy that not what you said. What puppy heard you say is, I got a click and treat for getting up.  Understand what I mean about timing? If you recall I said in the beginning, you don’t need to know all the fancy stuff, because no matter how complicated some people make this process it all boils down to: Dog does something you want. — Dog gets click. — Dog gets treat. So now we are armed with the ammunition/knowledge to start communicating with our furry friend. We are going to start with the most basic and straightforward behavior, “the sit.” After you learn the theory behind this, with some imagination, you can train any behavior, but there are tons of books, DVDs, and videos out there to help, or you can check out my site. So let’s get started. There stands your dog looking at you and there you stand looking back at your dog.

You are at the ready with clicker and treats in hand.  You now show him a treat, holding it kind of close to his nose, but you don’t give it to him. Now your willing pupil will do one of two things, mug your hand to try to get the treat or just stand there looking at the hand with the treat. Either way, if it mugs the hand or just stares, try to manipulate it up a little bit so that his eyes and front goes up a bit. Now simple physics says that if the front end is looking up the back end must go down, the moment his butt hits the floor, click and treat.  That’s it. Simple isn’t it? Remember the rule. Dog does something you want (sit). – Dog gets click. – Dog gets Treat. This is repeated over and over, until your sweet little darling catches on (and proves it by repeated performances) and Buddy has come to the realization that he now has you trained to hand out a treat, all he has to do is sit.  Cleaver dog being able to train you like that. He has trained you to recognize his command (with sitting) and you now know to click and hand him a treat. Now we are going to put a voice command to the behavior. Trainers call this a cue.  Adding the cue is simple. All you do is say the word “sit” just before doggie sits. When you feel comfortable that you have given him the cue enough times, and he knows what you are talking about, now raise the bar, and only click and treat when you say the command “sit.” Watch how quickly he learns to listen for the magic word, which to him now means, the treat machine only works when that word is spoken. So if I just wait for the word, and then sit, I get my reward.  Now there may come a bit of an issue with puppy. What if puppy decides to sit without your cue? Well you are too smart to fall for that.  You are not going to let him become a tyrant and demand treats. You two are a team.  Time to raise the bar again. New rule: I did not say sit, so you get nothing, and I am just going to ignore the fact that you did the behavior. There is another scenario that could develop. You give the cue to your little buddy, but he just stands there looking at you, with an expression that says ‘what you are talking about, I have no idea what you want, or what that word means.’ Now this response from your four footed friend could and probably will happen, for a few reasons.

First off, you may have miscalled his familiarity with the cue. If that’s it, start over.  Or it could be that you spent too much time in one place and now in his little mind he is thinking, this treat machine only works at one location. If that’s it, start training in various locations. Lastly, whatever you are using as a treat isn’t cutting it with him. If that’s it, you better start looking for something more tasty in his eyes (and hope it is not filet mignon). Operant people call this a high value food reward. What is important about his failure to respond to the cue is that as a trainer of operant conditioning, you do not think of your pet as bullheaded or showing willful disobedience. You examine the situation and try to determine the cause for his lack of performance. One thing positive trainers never do, is resort to punishment.  Science has without question proven that an animal trained using positive motivation brings more to the animal/handler relationship, are more willing workers with greater desire to please grow Think about it, where would you be happier? Working with positive motivation or working due to the fear of punishment? Now, that’s not to say, that operant conditioning cannot be used to correct bad behavior. There is a principal in operant conditions called extinction. Simply put, if a behavior is not rewarded or reinforced, it just goes away. But what if the behavior is self-reinforcing? He just loves chewing up stuff. The trainer figures a way to curtail the issue. Maybe he is just bored. If so, let’s get him some environmental enrichment, or maybe he just wound-up and needs to get out and exercise. Get him out (it’s good for you both), or it could be as simple as working with his desire to chew by substituting with more appropriate doggie chew toys. One of the more common misunderstandings regarding operant conditioning is: I don’t want to carry around treats for the rest of my life for my dog to behave or another one often heard.  What happens if I don’t have any treats?  I do not want my dog to only behave if I have treats for him.

That sentiment is without any basis of fact. Once your dog is thoroughly grounded and fluent in a behavior there is no reason to continue doing the click and treat thing, and as a matter of fact, it is better if you don’t. Two fancy terms in the operant conditioning world, are fixed rate of reinforcement and variable rate of reinforcement. What this means is simply how often you click and treat forbehaviors offered. In the beginning stages of training a behavior, Fido is reinforced every time he does the behavior correctly.  That is a fixed rate of reinforcement – one click, one treat, for one behavior or depending, behaviors. But what happens if Fido does his trick and then there is no click no treat? Well I can tell you that he is not going to be happy about it. So what do you think Fido is going to do? He is going to try doing that behavior over, again, and again until one of them rings the bell.  And now you control this behavior, with a variable rate of reinforcement, meaning Fido does the trick once, no treat. Fido does it again, treat. He might get two treats in a row and then draws a blank the next time, but the next two are pay dirt. It is totally random and unpredictable when there is a payout.  Contrary to what you might think, this will not stop him from trying. Actually, it will make him try harder, he will continue doing behaviors until – bang there it is. Click and Treat.

This variable rate thing will bring solid responses (think casinos and slot machines, same principal). Now that is not to say, if there are no or very few reinforcements over a span of time, eventually what will happen is the attempts will become fast and furious and then less and less until the behavior is totally gone. There you have it. Your basis for building a solid, happy, relationship with your dog. It bears repeating that science has proven this is the way to go. So get your clicker, get your treats, and get to it.


Happy Clicking.

NOTE: There is ample evidence that simply getting a treat often times does not quite ring the bell (its a pun, Pavlov remember?) the Value of the Treat has a BIG bearing on the response from your dog. Doggie people call this a “High Value Treat” simply put that statement means offering a treat that your dog absolutely loves and goes crazy over – No person can tell you what your dogs High Value Treat is, only he/she can, so experiment and offer lots of varied items to find the one, two or many things that make him or her go bonkers.

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