Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Clicker Training Question & Answer

One of my readers Margaret asked, "Everything seems to be working. I am just amazed, though, at how many treats he gets. Is that really what clicker training is all about? (I am not being snotty, I really don't know). I will have to google it. My QH (or my 1/2 Friesian) would NEVER get their mind on business and off of treats. Isn't the clicker supposed to be the award of a job well done and an occasional treat. I would like to see if he would put forth the effort without so many treats... or is that what you do eventually."

Okay, first I have to say I am really horrible about explaining things (which is why I will never be a teacher), so I'm going to use websites/videos to help me explain this.  :)  If you have the time and patience, here is a long video that explains how to get started with clicker training (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_wv1uvvqaSw).  Here's another one from a blog I read frequently (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FAb3KJyxq0o&feature=related).   Also here's a short FAQ on a popular clicker training website (http://www.clickertraining.com/faq). 

Okay, now for my attempt to explain using my own words.  The clicker is a marker signal.  Think about the dolphins that are taught tricks at SeaWorld.  If they are being trained to jump, you can't immediately give them a fish when they are halfway across the tank, so it's impossible to be precise on what you're praising.  With a whistle (what they use instead of a clicker) you can whistle at the EXACT instant they do what you like.  They will know that's what they are being rewarded for even if it takes a minute to get their fish.  So no the clicker is not the reward.  It is a marker signal.  There are websites that can explain that a little better for you, but that's the basic idea.

Now, there are some people who don't like feeding treats at all.  Think of it this way.  There are a lot of different people in the world with a lot of different personality.  Some people are people pleasers.  A people pleaser is more likely to work for only praise.  I'm talking about going to work and getting a job done and getting praised for their good work, but no money!  Some people will work if it's fun for no pay.  However there are some people who are just not motivated by either of those things and will not work if they are not receiving a paycheck!  To a dog or horse the treat is their paycheck, especially if you're working on something they don't like (fly spray or for dogs having nails trimmed).  Some dogs will work all day for the chance to play with a ball, some won't.  Some will work all day just for your praise, some won't.  Some dogs are just highly food motivated (like my Beagle cross).  Horses are the same way.  I don't think of it as bribing.  It's a reward for a job well done.  :)  Clicker training can even teach dogs and horses to enjoy their work!  Also the pieces of food are TINY, so it won't cause weight gain (well I'm still working on finding the perfect treat for the horses that is small with no sugar, I think the green beans might work once they get more fond of them).  It's not about how much they are getting.  If you hand a dog a tiny piece of food or dump a whole bowl full on the ground they both mean the same thing.  That's why when clicker trainers give a jackpot, they give it one piece at a time, because they dog thinks they are getting more.  Anyway, I just got sidetracked (one reason I don't explain things well).

Also what a lot of people don't understand is that clicker training is for the the learning process or for refreshing old behaviors.  You don't ALWAYS use clicker training.  The reason it may seem like it is because when I post videos I'm posting them of new behaviors, not old ones.  If I posted a video of old behaviors you'll notice I'm not using the clicker. 

Think about this.  When I first got Chrome I taught him to be haltered, to pick up his feet, to stand tied, etc. all of that with clicker training.  Now I don't click for any of that!  He knows how to do it and he knows when it is expected of him and because he enjoys working with me he does those things without a reward.  So what you're seeing in the videos is Chrome learning new things.  When they are first learning something new you have to reward often.  This is why clicker trained animals can learn sooooo much faster than traditionally trained animals (if you have a consistent trainer and I am by no means consistent unfortunately lol).  You can teach a horse to tense it's muscles or shift it's weight or flick it's tail with clicker training. That's how precise it is!!  You watch for the tiniest movement in the right direction and click it.  It's amazing the things you can do with clicker training (I'm still learning so I'm nowhere near good enough to capture such tiny movements yet). 

All behaviors get weaned off of the clicker though.  Once the horse knows the behavior he doesn't need a marker signal to tell him what he did right.  He already knows.  A reward of some kind (treat, rest, scratches, praise) is still appreciated by the animal, but treats can definitely be weaned out.  I will mention though that clicker training teaches a horse how to learn and gets them enthusiastic about learning, but once I wean off of the clicker and treats he performs like any other horse without so much of the enthusiasm.  That could very well be a failure on my part (I'm not very good at the weaning process - here's a website for how to wean them off of treats http://www.netplaces.com/dog-training-and-tricks/clicker-training/weaning-off-the-clicker-and-treats.htm).  Almost anything you can imagine can be trained with clicker training.  I'm just not precise, consistent or imaginative enough to get those kinds of results.  What clicker training has given me is a horse who loves to try new things, is very confident, always comes to me (even if I don't have food) because he never knows what exciting things we might do (I work with him a lot without using any treats at all), etc.  He loves to play and be with me (even without treats!!). 

Using clicker training with Chrome has been a huge learning curve with me because he is the first horse I've ever clicker trained!!  I've trained dogs, but never a horse with clicker.  So if I'm doing anything wrong, or he's being pushy about food, or he's not learning something, it is ALL MY FAULT!!!  I'm still learning too.  Fortunately anything you can train with clicker training, you can also easily untrain (by teaching an opposite behavior) with clicker training, so when I make mistakes it's not the end of the world.  Since this is my first horse to clicker train I am VERY careful about what behaviors I train.  I won't teach him to rear or strike out with his hooves until (or never) I have the skill to do it safely. 

So anyway I hope that helps explain some of what clicker training is about.  I know I suck at explaining things, so if you have any other questions feel free to ask!!  Thanks!!


  1. I think you did a great job in explaining it. I think the greatest part of clicker training is the enthusiastic student. It is so nice to have a horse that is happy to work rather than just going through the motions because it is a job. Clicking turns it from a work session to a play session. I never go through a whole carrot a day, either.

  2. You did a great job of explaining it! I use almonds with Shy, no sugar and she likes them.

    Another thing about clicker training, at first I click and treat every time. As the horse starts to understand, I click always and treat randomly. Then I wean the click out and it is an expected behavior.

    Shy catches on really quick with this. She is food motivated, but she does not become pushy with it. She knows she has to do something to get the treat. Sometimes it takes a minute to figure out what I am asking (and she will go through a series of tricks she has already learned looking for the right behavior), but once she figures it out, she has it.

  3. I am glad the question was asked because I, too, thought the treats were excessive. Different training methods, always something new to learn. Glad it is working for you

  4. Well explained. I am curious to know what kind of treats clicker trainers typically use. When we were trying to con Dee into letting us clip her ears I tried giving her a steady stream of treats (it did work a little bit). But after a point I really worried "these are not designed to be fed like this". So I would like to know what some good no consequence treats are.

  5. Wow! I am impressed. I will be back later to look at the linked site. Thanks, I do understand how it works from your description now :)

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  7. I think you did a good job of explaining! I am a certified clicker trainer and what I usually tell people is that the high rate of reinforcement facilitates learning. Some people tend to get hung up on the treats but what they need to understand is that the food treats used in training are miniscule compared to the animal's daily diet. If weight gain is a concern, I advise clients to try using their dog's daily kibble, mixed with a few tastier treats and then subtract that used in training from the dog's daily ration. Also-- a lot of people tend to continue to feed table scraps to their dogs after starting clicker training. It is important that treats are earned - otherwise why would the animal want to work for food? This is where the real weight gain comes in (table scraps). If people want to feed their animals table scraps, I advise them to cut excess fat off lean meat and use vegetables cut into pea-size pieces (for dogs), freeze or refrigerate in zip-lock baggies and use as needed in training. For more information about clicker training, see these articles: http://dubuquedogtrainer.hubpages.com/hub/clickertrainingfordogs, http://www.animalinfo.com.au/fact_sheets/view/2/25/175/What_is_Clicker_Training

  8. Another thing which people misunderstand about clicker training is that food is only used in the beginning stages of training. Once an animal learns a behavior, the reinforcement schedule is adjusted to a less frequent ratio (of behavior to reinforcement)and secondary reinforcers such as praise, petting and play are added in. Also -- food should be used as a reward, not a bribe. If used as a bribe, that is, made visible to the animal during training and used as a lure, the animal will come to depend on food to perform the behavior. Not only is food a primary reinforcer (something the animal doesn't have to learn to like, but likes inherently because it meets a biologic need), but food can be used as a gauge of an animal's stress level. Stressed animals have difficulty eating and a stressed animal has difficulty learning. Also, food can be delivered with far more precision that petting and praise!

  9. As the others have said great explaination! Star was never going to be motivated by fuss or rest, food as a reward really helped her to be interested and enthusiastic in training.

    And once we'd built that bond I don't use treats all the time for everything, in fact sometimes when she's really into what she's doing I click and she doesn't even want the treat, just to go again! However some behaviours which she has a lot of associations with bad things happening, for example footcare, I keep on a high rate of reinforcement :)

  10. Very nice explanation. The part where it gets hard for me is building duration. I'm great at starting to train a behavior, not so good at getting it firmly established. Clicker training is as much a learning process for the human as the animal!

  11. Cindy, thank you so much for adding more information to my post!! As I said I am still learning and there is a lot I still don't know. Since I don't know anyone in my area who uses clicker training I don't have anyone to learn from. I'm doing it all on my own from books and the internet. :D

    smazourek, me too!!!


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