What Makes Someone a “Clicker Trainer” ?

What makes someone a clicker trainer
as opposed to someone who trains with  a clicker in their hand?

Let me start by giving a definition of clicker training (as defined by Karen Pryor, KPCT);

Clicker training” is an animal training method based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking desirable behavior and rewarding it. Desirable behavior is usually marked by using a “clicker,” a mechanical device that makes a short, distinct “click” sound which tells the animal exactly when they’re doing the right thing. This clear form of communication, combined with positive reinforcement, is an effective, safe, and humane way to teach any animal any behavior that it is physically and mentally capable of doing.

Karen goes on to say;

When an animal intentionally performs a behavior in order to bring about a desired consequence, as clicker trained animals do, they are learning in a way that researchers call “operant conditioning.”

Animals (and people) may also associate an action, event, place, person, or object with a consequence, whether pleasant or unpleasant. The more a certain event or environment is paired with a particular consequence, the stronger the association. This type of learning is called “classical conditioning” and represents reflexive or automatic behavior, rather than intentional behavior.

While clicker training initially employs classical conditioning, it quickly becomes operant conditioning as soon as the animal intentionally repeats an action in order to earn a reward. Training through operant conditioning results in purposeful behavior, while training through classical conditioning results in habitual behavior.

The difference between an animal that behaves with purpose, rather than by habit, is vast. Clicker trained or operantly conditioned animals try to learn new behaviors. They remember behaviors even years later because they were aware of them as they learned them, rather than acquiring them without awareness. They develop confidence because they have control over the consequences of their actions. They are enthusiastic because they expect those consequences to be pleasurable.”

Those last two sentences start to highlight a side to clicker training that is unique to “clicker trainers”. With clicker training the animal is motivated to learn new behaviours, they develop confidence and they are enthusiastic because they expect the consequences to be fun and reinforcing.

“A consequence of any behavior can be unpleasant as well as pleasant. So why shouldn’t punishments follow unwanted behaviors, just as rewards follow wanted behaviors?

Research tells us that punishment may decrease the frequency of an unwanted behavior, but usually results in producing another unwanted behavior. The results of punishment as a training method are difficult to predict and to control.

In addition, punishment is not usually identified with an event marker. It almost always comes after the event and is rarely clearly connected with a specific behavior. In the animal’s perception, punishment is a random, meaningless event. It is, therefore, less effective than the combined use of an event marker and positive reinforcement in changing behavior.

Clicker trainers also feel that their relationships with their animals are stronger and more rewarding when they focus on the positive rather than the negative. Like the difference between an animal behaving with intention rather than by habit, the difference in attitude and enthusiasm between an animal that works to earn rewards rather than to avoid punishment is vast.

This raises a very key question; what is punishing? Therefore, what is reinforcing? This is where the training can get interesting. What I think might be reinforcing to my learner might not be received that way by the learner. Whether something is a punisher or a reinforcer is always owned by the learner (the person or animal on the receiving end). It can’t be owned by the trainer as they can’t know for sure how it will make the learner feel. I can make really good guesses as to what will be punishing or reinforcing to my learner, but the only way I can be really sure whether I am working with a reinforcer or a punisher is to see what the learner thinks of it.

If you have a sweet tooth and I offer you chocolate cake as a reinforcer for washing all the dishes you are more likely to wash them again tomorrow. If instead I gave you cheese you are less likely to do the dishes tomorrow. The chocolate cake acted as a reinforcer, the cheese acted as a punisher. I could have guessed if I knew your tastes in food, but I would never be really sure until I actually try it out.

Reinforcers “motivate” the learner, punishers “demotivate” the learner to repeat the behaviour again. When we talk about motivation we are starting to dip in to the emotional aspect of training. If you are motivated you are eager, you are ready, you are enthusiastic to learn, you feel good about what you are doing. and it leaves you wanting more. If your learner bounds over to you with enthusiasm and starts to offer behaviours you know you are on the right track. You clearly left them feeling good about how you interacted with them the last time. You are starting to form that relationship that Karen Pryor talked about.

Clicker trainers focus on what they DO want from the animal which means they can reinforce the behaviours they like and have asked for and that leaves little room for the unwanted behaviours and eliminates the need for punishers. The end result is a learner who is motivated… the learner feels good about the interaction with the trainer and wants to come back for more.

“Sometimes people are surprised by the enthusiasm and dedication clicker trainers have for their method. These trainers may have first started learning to click as a way of training their dog, but soon realized that the fundamental principles of clicker training could be applied to other areas of their lives. Changing one’s focus from the negative to the positive can certainly be a life-changing event.

This final statement from Karen Pryor sums up clicker training quite nicely and how it can make a “clicker trainer”. A “clicker trainer” endeavour to leave people feeling good about interactions with them. To achieve that they become acutely aware of, and are caring about, how everyone and everything they interact with feel as a result of that interaction. They don’t just have a clicker in their hand to train their horse or their dog…the have a clicker training approach to life and everyone they meet in life.

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