When I started training, we used to describe using a clicker to taking a Poloroid photo of the desired behavior. These days, however, many of my (human) students are too young to have more than a hazy idea of a Poloroid, so the analogy doesn’t work quite as well anymore.
However, I recently realized that the concept is even more relevant than it used to be. In an era when cellphone cameras capture every cute pose and expression our dogs make, what could be more relevant than the concept of taking a photo to capture desired behaviors?
That is what markers help us do.
Markers signal to our dogs when they have done something right. Of course, we reinforce our approbation with food or play rewards, but the use of a marker makes this connection cleaner and clearer. If you are rewarding a sit, during the delay between sit and treat, your dog may have looked at the ground, licked his lips, and whined. Which behavior is being rewarded? The answer is obvious to us, but less so for our dogs. That confusion is what the marker resolves.
The utility of the clicker is backed up by some basic learning theory. Through use, the clicker becomes associated with the primary reinforcer (food, play, etc.). Once your pet has started recognizing the clicker as a signal, don’t be surprised if he or she reacts to the sound. My cat will come running from another room at the sound of the clicker.
Using the clicker works like this:
BEHAVIOR → CLICK! → REWARD
In order to maintain this strength, you should continue to reinforce every click with some type of primary reward. When you are ready to fade the rewards associated with a given behavior, you should also skip the click.
I can’t end this post without at least a mention of those noise-sensitive dogs that are afraid of the sound of a clicker. If the clicker you have is too loud, you can sometimes wrap the clicker in a washcloth or other small cloth to dampen the sound. Additionally, there are “quiet click” models available. I recommend steering clear of box clickers, which tend to be too loud even for less-nervous dogs. For highly noise-sensitive dogs, or people who find the clicker difficult to use physically, a verbal marker can be used instead. Select a short, clear word (I use “Yip!”) spoken clearly and distinctly. If you speak clearly, the verbal marker can work nearly as well in many circumstances, but it is not as easily distinctive in loud or distracting environments.