First Dolphins, Now Dogs
by Jody Frederick with contributions from Carolyn Clark and Gerry Bower *
Have you ever visited Sea World? Were you awestruck by the amazing and seemingly effortless antics of the dolphins and killer whales as they sailed through hoops and jumped skyward? Have you ever wondered how the trainers manage to make two-ton mammals perform such incredible stunts with the greatest of precision and ease? Have you ever wished that there was a way to make your dog respond that way?
There is good news for all dog owners who are interested in improving their communication skills and building a new type of relationship with their dogs! The same theory that is used in dolphin training is now being applied to dog training.
What are the basic principles of dolphin training?
Broadly speaking, dolphin trainers do not use physical punishment or brute force. After all, how do you reprimand an animal that just swims away? Dolphin trainers get the behaviours they want using positive reinforcement alone. Positive reinforcement refers to rewarding the behaviours that the trainer likes or wants. With positive reinforcement, the animal gets rewarded in ways meaningful to the animal (the kettle of fish for the dolphin or bits of weiner for a dog) for doing what the human being wants it to.
Think about traditional dog training methods for a moment. These methods often include the use of choker collars and physical force, both in making the dog do what we want it to (i.e., forcing a reluctant or frightened greyhound to sit by collapsing its rear legs against its will) and in correcting the dog when it does what we do not want it to (i.e., jerking sharply on the collar when the dog pulls on the lead).
A reinforcer is anything that strengthens the likelihood that a behaviour will happen. There are different types of reinforcers: a primary reinforcer is something that the animal naturally likes (food, play, sex, massage etc.). A conditioned reinforcer is a sign or sound which the animal has learned to like because it stands for a primary reinforcer (a click, “yes,” a whistle, a hand signal).
Clicker training is built on the idea of positive reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement training is completely different from the type of training whereby you make your dog do something, correcting it each time it’s wrong until it learns how to do it right. Instead, with positive reinforcement training, the trainer watches what the dog is doing, communicates with a signal that he/she likes the behaviour, then rewards the behaviour with food, praise, petting, or play.
What is this fabled “clicker”? It is a small, hand-held device that makes an unmistakeably sharp clicking sound when it is pressed. Clickers sound the same no matter how you are feeling when you press it. The clicker is far superior to using one’s voice (“Good Dog!”) because you can’t say a word with the same precision that you can achieve with a click. You might unintentionally change the intonation and/or volume each time you say the key word (“Goooooood Dog!” versus “Good Doooog!” versus “Good Dog!” versus “Good Dog”). A verbal reinforcer does not stand out as distinctly as a “click” and therefore, the message is not as clear. Another reason the clicker is far better than using one’s voice is because we speak to our dogs frequently, even when we’re not reinforcing or training them. How are they to know the difference?
How do you start clicker training?
First, you must condition the dog to accept the click sound as meaning a treat is coming.” To do this, get twenty food treats. Click and then give the treat. Do twenty repetitions. Typically, you must do at least sixty repetitions in order for the dog to have a strong association between the clicker (a conditioned reinforcer) and the primary reinforcer (in this case, food). This is only the beginning — see it as a magic key to a whole new world of relating to your dog.
Books on the principles of operant conditioning and positive reinforcement:
B.F. Skinner (1951). “How to teach animals.” Scientific American, 185 (12): 26-29.
Karen Pryor, (1985). Don’t Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training, Bantam Books.
Karen Pryor, (1996). A Dog and a Dolphin 2.0. Sunshine Books.
Gary Wilkes, CLICK! & TREAT (TM) TRAINING KIT VHS – 56 minutes Includes two clickers and an instruction book. Available from Click & Treat (TM) Products, Mesa, AZ Order line (800) 456-9526
Garry Martin & Joseph Pear. Behavior Modification: What it is and how to do it (5th ed) (1996). Prentice Hall. Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458 ISBN # 0-13-310947-X
Sunshine Books Inc. 1-800-47-CLICK sells many of the above books. Contact them for a free catalogue of clickers and clicker-related publications.
A monthly newsletter
The Clicker Journal for trainers and by trainers. The cost is $15 (US) yearly and is available from Corrally Burmaster, Editor, Rt. 1 Box 349 E, Leesburg, VA 22075.
(1) CLICK-L is an Internet email list for clicker training. To subscribe, send an email to:
CLICK-L@txk9cop.metronet.com. In the message area, type “subscribe first_name last_name” (without quotations).
(2) A very informative web page on clicker training is at: http://dontshootthedog.com
Karen Pryor (1995). A Dog and A Dolphin: An Introduction to Click and Treat (TM) Training, Sunshine Books.
* Carolyn Clark and Gerry Bower are obedience instructors at The Centre for Applied Canine Behaviour, 600 Eagleson Rd., Kanata, Ontario CANADA K2M 1H4. This school has been very understanding towards the unique obedience training needs of the author’s two ex-racing greyhounds.
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