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Introduction to Clicker Training


Sassafras, partner of Anne, is targeting her football.

Anne's Website (Gaited Horses and Mules)

Clicker training refers to a new method of teaching behavior using a "yes" signal or conditioned reinforcer, to tell the animal precisely when it has done something right.

What is Clicker Training?

Simply put it is that aspect of operatant conditioning that uses positive reinforcement combined with the use of a conditioned reinforcer. I guess that isn't exactly simple.

Operant conditioning refers to an aspect of behavioral science in which the animal is taught to make active behavioral choices based on what is encouraged or discouraged. The part about the animal playing an active role here is what is unique about this. It is not merely pavlovian conditioning.

Positive reinforcement is that which is ADDED (positive meaning + or add) to the environment which tends to INCREASE the frequency of a behavior. IOW one might ADD food or stroking to INCREASE the incidence of some behavior you want.

There is also negative reinforcement which is the REMOVAL (negative meaning take away, not bad!) of something from the environment which tend to INCREASE the frequency of a behavior. With horses we use negative reinforcement a lot because they respond so well to the removal of pressure.

The "clicker" serves as conditioned reinforcer. It is a signal to the animal that they have made the right choice and as such a reinforcer (food or other desirable thing) is coming. The purpose of the clicker is to "mark" the desired behavior so that the animal knows exactly what to do to get the reinforcer.

My horse is clicker trained and understands the word "good" to be a conditioned reinforcer. I've used this training to help her cope with painful or stressful situations as well as in our day to day training (on the ground or under saddle).

The way one *starts* clicker training is with a simple behavior to introduce the horse to the idea. Typically, one begins with targeting because it is handy to teach the horse and very easy. First though you teach the horse what the sound of the clicker means. Usually this is done with a favored food because this gets the message across most quickly. Later a broader range of reinforcers may be added for variety. A good clicker trainer can read the horse and recognize what the horse is most motivated to work for. This is done simply by clicking the clicker (once) then offering a teeny tiny tidbit (say a nickel sized sliver of carrot). Click give a bit of carrot, click give a bit of carrot. The smart horse will quickly begin to anticipate the arrival of the carrot upon hearing the click.

Once the horse understands that the click means reward (treat) is coming you can move to phase 2. Connecting behavior choices to the click. May go something like this. Use a good sized object like a ball or cone or a plastic container lid. Present the object to the horse. Being curious animals the horse is likely to sniff it. Click and give a treat (c/t). Present the object again and c/t when the horse sniffs it. What you are doing is telling the horse that touching the object with his nose will earn a reward. Pretty soon the horse will begin to actively seek out the object in order to get the treat.

The key to clicker training is the idea of shaping. You can begin with very small hints of the desired behavior and shape them to what you really want. For example, in the first targeting session once the horse understands that treats are involved he will lose interest in sniffing the object and start sniffing your pockets. Assuming the horse isn't the nippy sort (there are strategies for dealing with this but I won't go there right now) you simply ignore that and wait for the horse to pay attention to the target object. Never ever give a horse the treat for mugging. Only for the desired behavior.

So you wait and watch. THIS is the part that requires the greatest skill. At some point the horse may accidentally turn his head torward the object. C/T. Wait some more. C/T ANYthing that even approaches the possibility that the horse might touch the object, even if it is accidental. Turning his head toward it, reaching without touching, then eventually touching. At some point there will be the all important Light Bulb Moment when the horse Gets It. "Oh," he says, "I touch this thing and I get a treat? Way cool!" You can't miss it and it is a very exciting moment for the trainer. (G)

This process though generally only takes a few minutes, perhaps half an hour. Now the horse knows the Training Game. Once he knows the game you can begin to apply the clicker means That's Right to everything you do.

Here's an example of a way I used clicker training to help my horse cope with a stressful situation. Once she had a bad case of thrush and I had to pack the frog with medicated cotton balls using a hoof pick. OWIE she did NOT like that. The vet was sure I wouldn't be able to get the stuff up there. Just you watch. ;-) Once she knew I was going to pick up her foot and do things that hurt she didn't want me to pick up her foot. So, I started with c/t for letting me touch her leg. Then touch her foot. Then pick up her foot. Then just touch the foot with the cotton. Then with the hoof pick. Then more firmly with the hoof pick. Then pressing the hoof pick into the frog. Then more deeply. And so on. The instant she allowed me to take a step I clicked, dropped what I was doing and gave her a treat. In ten minutes she went from dancing around and really fighting to pull her foot away to standing quietly while I shoved the cotton into her frog with the hoof pick.

More than treats are involved in the success here. One is the fact that she is clicker savvy. IOW just the sound of the click (or in my case the "GOOD" word said in a distinctive way) is calming because she KNOWS good things are coming. Also, the idea of working on very small acheivable goals is central to all good training. As in make haste slowly. But that in a nutshell is what clicker training is about. Sharon Foley

>>If you know how to get the horses' trust, you do not need no gimmicks. I don't know why we can't get back to basics. Let horses be horses-- they are not people even thou some people think they are. I have to retrain too many that have been given treats.<<

Because food is such a powerful motivator it is like a razor in the hands of a child. Agreed, don't do it if you don't know how to control it.

People whose horses require "retraining because food was used" do NOT require retraining because of the food -- they require *TRAINING* because they were not *TRAINED* in the first place. :-) Rule #1: Reward the behavior you WANT. Mugging and biting is NOT WANTED therefore I would NEVER reward it. Horses are a Very quick study. The mistake that people who end up with a horse who has bad manners "because of food" made the fatal mistake of rewarding that behavior. Maybe even just once. It was not the treats it was the trainer.

I have studied, and use, the principles of "natural horsemanship" (back to basics?) and have found that good trainers ALL do the same thing. They have great timing and feel, they care for the horse, they have a sense of awareness, they understand what the horse needs in order to make the step to the next level of learning. The existance of treats or not is irrelevant. What clicker training does for the HUMAN is provide them with a way to learn a little bit more about these vital elements of training. Once learned they discover they apply to everything. Then no matter what they do, or what method they follow (or whether they use treats or not) they better understand how and why it works.


What is a Clicker Trainer?

This issue has come up before. A couple of months ago Bob and Marian Bailey and I got together on the phone and hammered out a definition we could live with, which I then passed by some of the autism folks and they approved it too. I have submitted it to William Verplanck in hopes that he will add it to the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies website glossary. here it is (I may have a slightly different wording at the office, this is from memory):

"Clicker training is that part of operant conditioning that utilizes positive reinforcement and a conditioned reinforcer used as a marker signal."

In other words, our definition specifically excludes punishment. When you are punishing, you are not clicker training. You are punishing. You may be negatively reinforcing operant behavior but the use of the aversive under this definition says that that procedure is not clicker training.

So, punishers may be clicker users without being clicker trainers in this definition. Or they might be clicker training some of the time and conventional training some of the time...which will have an inhibitory effect on the overall rate of offered behavior in the subject, as well, of course, as the risk of fallout of various other unpredictable sorts, as we all know.

Please feel free to post this anywhere you like. Morgan Spector's new book, "Clicker Training for Obedience," is available at last, and he addresses this question. (Call 1-800-47-CLICK for info.) Also I have discussed it at great length in the new revised edition of DSTD which will be out next summer. Karen Pryor

Robert, keeping his end of the "deal" with Ariel, a 7 month old Percheron filly. She gets a treat.