What is clicker training?

A question I am asked almost daily is “what is clicker training?”.  It’s a fairly straight forward question, and as my experience, knowledge and understanding of clicker training and the science that describes it has deepened, my reply has evolved and deepened, and can be readily altered to suit the audience.  The core of the answer is the same, but how I describe it has become more refined.

Clicker training can easily be described in terms of learning theory, behavioral science, and more.  It can even be described in terms of the relationship it builds with the horse, the results it produces and the motivation it awakens in the horse (and usually handler as well).  But it never quite seems to get to the crux of the matter.  Which brings me to what I feel may be the more important question….

What is a Clicker Trainer ?

What tells us that you or I are clicker trainers and someone else is not ?  The obvious answer is  “we train our animals with clickers!”.  However, I sometimes encounter someone who is using a clicker to train their animal, but it would appear that the animal is not having a positive experience, so that definition is not nearly a good enough way of assessing a clicker trainer.

A number of years ago I had a boss at work who was definitely a clicker trainer, but never once held a clicker.  He also never trained animals.  But for the first time appraisals at work were no longer about pointing out areas for improvement, I was no longer in a blame culture, I was in a positive environment.  I had never to my knowledge, until then, encountered anyone who could generate all of that.  What was it about him that made him such a great trainer, a great boss, someone I wanted to learn from and spend time with ?

Here are a list of just some of the things that struck me about him as qualities that I admired and learned from:

  • Patient; not only when explaining something to anyone, but also when someone was explaining things to him.
  • Consistent; he was consistent in his approach to everything, including all the qualities listed here.  As a result, any day he was not consistent people felt able and willing to approach him to ask what was wrong and they willingly offered assistance in resolving issues.  No poisoned cues with this boss !


    Time ! Trust ! Observant !

  • Fair; he treated everyone fairly, never with conscious use of punishers.  If something wasn’t going so well he gave time, patience and a chance to figure out how to get things back on track, always ready incase you needed to ask for his help. And he never escalated pressure.
  • Positive; no matter how bad we thought things were, he could help to see the positive side to it.
  • Trust; he trusted people to get on with their jobs and not micro-manage them.  Due to his qualities he was approachable and so if people need help they felt they could approach him knowing they would get nothing but assistance and patience.
  • Time; no matter how busy he was he always had time to listen patiently, to help, to advise.
  • Observant; he got to know his team well and so it was easy for him to know when things were going well, or not so well.
  • Respect; he treated everyone with respect.

He also instinctively knew how to apply the 10 laws of shaping behaviour (search archives for “10 Laws”).  These are many of the qualities that make us clicker trainers, as opposed to being people who train with a clicker in their hand.

I was working for this same boss at the time, I bought Classic and I am no doubt that his influence over me led me to search for a positive way to train my young stallion.  As a result I found Alexandra Kurland, The Clicker Center, and in doing so found someone else who had all of these qualities, could create a positive environment to work and learn in and who inspired me.

Clicker training is not so much a training method (though there is a solid structure available to follow if needed), its more a way of being with animals.  A way of looking at them, listening to them, respecting them and applying all of the qualities listed above to our interactions with them.  That way of being with animals starts to cross over in to how we are with people around us.  It becomes a way of life.

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