To reinforce a behavior the reward must be given within 2 seconds of the behavior happening. This means that we have to be lightning fast at delivering the reward in order for the dog to understand what they did correctly. Most of us aren’t "the Flash", so by taking longer than two seconds, we often reward the wrong behaviors.
For example, when a dog sits, and you walk over to the cookie jar, open it, and take a cookie out, then give it to your pup; the dog might be thinking that after it got up from the sit, wiggled his tail, lifted his paw, then tilted his head to eat the treat, it was tilting his head that got him the treat, because that was the last thing that he did. This all gets rather muddy and confusing for the animals. Because training is all about learning, communication is a key component of this process.
In order to communicate more precisely, we need something to “bridge” the time in between the behavior and the delivery of the reward. That is where a clicker comes in. The clicker provides information to the animal by making a sound at the exact moment that they perform a behavior correctly. Ultimately making training more efficient. The technical term for a clicker is an event marker.
If you have ever been to a dolphin or marine mammal show you have probably already seen an event marker in action. Whistles are another form of event marker used to train marine mammals because their sound carries more effectively under water. The complex jumps, twists, and tricks that you see dolphins performing were all trained using only an event marker and a bucket of fish.
Clickers can be purchased at local pet stores at an average cost of approximately $2-$3. If you do not have access to a clicker, you can make the click sound with your tongue on the roof of your mouth, or substitute the word "Yes!" for the click.
Will I need to use the clicker & reinforcements (rewards) forever?
Simply put, No. The clicker is only used in the initial stages of learning as a tool to communicate with the dog. It is not meant to replace rewards, and it is not used to cue behavior. The sound of the click basically translates to mean "Yes, that's correct!".
As for rewards, your pup will always appreciate being rewarded for a job well done. However once we build a strong habit with lots of practice and a strong history of reinforcement, rewards will not be necessary for every repetition of a behavior. Do not expect to get to that point until well after this course is complete, and you have practiced long and hard to create a strong habit.
Habits are not born overnight, and will require lots of work before fading the use of rewards. Once you feel your pup is fluent in the new behaviors, you can begin to reward only the best occurrences of the behavior. As time goes by you can raise that criteria to be very specific, for immediacy, effort and more. This will help to reduce the number of rewards you use in training, but also refine behaviors to fit your criteria over time. This is how we create technical polished behaviors.
Keep in mind that reinforcements (rewards) can be anything that your animal likes, and that does not mean food alone. Play and attention can be reinforcing, access to freedoms, privileges like riding in the car, or going to park, and more can all be reinforcing!
The general motto of positive trainers is "nothing in life is free." All rewards should be earned in an exchange of behavior for reinforcement. Want to go outside? How about a sit first. Want dinner? How about a polite down while I prepare it. We teach our dogs that our interactions are an exchange, and they can get access to what they want through offering behaviors. Think about all of the types of reinforcement you have at your disposal, going on walks, going outdoors, petting, and more. Begin teaching your pup to earn access to these reinforcements by only providing them when your pup is behaving in a way that you like. If your dog is barking to go outside, and you don't want barking to become a habit, wait until he is quiet before sending him out. It is all about communication. The message that is sent by sending out a barking pup is that barking works to open the door. This will only make it occur again and again.
Most Importantly have fun with your dog, training should be fun for both of you!
Before we can use a clicker in training to mark the correct behavior, we must teach the pup that the sound of the click is important, and something worth paying attention to. If the dog doesn't understand the click, the tool is not going to work effectively. To give the click meaning to the dog, we use a process called "loading the clicker", based on Ivan Pavlov's famous technique of Classical Conditioning with the bell. The steps are very simple:
Loading the Clicker
Step 1: Click
Step 2: Give the dog the reward as fast as you can.
Step 3: Repeat 10 times then give your pup a brief (15-30 second) break.
Practice as needed until your dog visibly "perks up" after the sound of the click, as he expects a reward. This means that the dog has learned the connection, and has come to expect that the click means a reward is coming.
It doesn't matter what the pup is doing, your only job is to get the treat in the dog's mouth immediately after the click. If you do not have access to a clicker, you can make the click sound with your tongue on the roof of your mouth, or substitute the word "Yes!" for the click. Whichever you choose, be consistent and do not switch off between sounds or you may lose out on some of the efficacy of the tool.