Clicker Training – Where it All Began

Though I walk dogs rain or shine, any New Englander knows that sometimes it just gets too cold, too snowy, or raining too hard to walk outside! It’s on those kinds of days that I need a little extra something to stimulate the pups I visit. That’s when my clicker comes in handy! It doesn’t take long for a dog to pick up on the concept of a clicker, and while they see it as a really fun game to play, I see it as a great opportunity to stimulate their brains, strengthen our bond, and get them thinking.

So where did the concept of clicker training come from and what makes this little tool such a great, fun way to keep a dog stimulated? It all started by training another very intelligent species, dolphins! Though dolphin trainers use whistles instead of a clicker, the concept is the same. It’s all about shaping behaviors and making the animal “think!”

Let’s say a dolphin trainer wants to train a dolphin to jump into the air to touch a ball that’s hanging over the water. First, the trainer teaches the dolphin to associate the whistle with a treat. Everytime he blows the whistle, the dolphin gets a treat. Once the association is made, the training can begin!

The trainer starts by placing the ball underneath the surface of the water and simply letting the dolphin swim around the pool. When the dolphin swims anywhere close to the ball, the trainer blows his whistle, and the dolphin comes over for a treat. Again, the dolphin is left to swim around, and again, if it gets anywhere close to the ball, the trainer blows the whistle. Soon the dolphin begins making an association, when she gets close to the ball, the whistle is blown and she gets a treat. Once that association is made, things will move much more quickly, she’ll swim towards the ball to get a treat. However, the trainer doesn’t want to train her just to swim towards the ball, he wants her to touch it with her nose. So he begins blowing the whistle only when she actually touches the ball, whether it’s by brushing past it or touching it with her nose. Once that association is made, she’ll swim right up to the ball, touch it with her nose, and return for a treat! Once she understands the behavior and is consistenly touching the ball with her nose, the trainer then labels the behavior with a command, let’s say it’s “touch.” He tells the dolphin “touch,” she swims to the ball and touches it with her nose, then returns for a treat. However, she’s not quite there yet…she still has to leap into the air! So now the labeled behavior is shaped further, the ball is raised to the surface of the water. When the trainer says “touch,” now the dolphin has to swim to the surface of the water and touch the ball, the whistle is blown and she returns for a treat. If she doesn’t make the association now that the ball is on the surface, the trainer will reshape the behavior as he did before, whistling when she gets close, then only when she touches the ball. Once the dolphin is consistently touching the ball on the surface, it’s then raised a couple of inches about the water, and once again the shaping begins! Gradually it’s raised higher and higher until upon the command “touch!” the dolphin leaps into the air and touches the ball with her nose!

That’s how the concept of clicker training came about for dogs! It’s an excellent way to shape your dog’s behavior while getting him to “think.” And it’s so much fun for them because it means lots and lots of cookies!!