Clicker A Positive, Effective Training Method

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Imagine attending a three-day conference with 300-plus people and 100 or so dogs. Clicker Expo was an exceptional opportunity. I have attended many dog training seminars with top trainers, but this was far above and beyond those experiences.

The speakers held doctorates in a variety of disciplines dealing with animal behavior and their research is ongoing. They work with creatures of the sea, such as dolphins and whales, or from the zoo environment. Some study how people learn.

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Karen Pryor, a behavioral biologist, founder and pioneering dolphin trainer at Hawaii's Sea Life Park, uses the clicker for a positive reinforcement training system based on operant conditioning. Higgins paid close attention.

The clicker is used to teach lions to push a paw through the space in the fence in order to get their nails clipped. With clickers and treats, lions learn to turn over on their backs so the veterinarian can examine them. They open their mouths on cue to receive medication or have their teeth checked.

Sea creatures learn to leap into the air and jump over poles, with their efforts reinforced by the sound of the whistle. The whistle is the signal that lets them know they did the task correctly and a treat is waiting.

One of the instructors, Ken Ramirez, who primarily works with zoo animals, brought an 8-month-old shelter pup home for the weekend. He wanted to know if dogs with no prior training could learn obedience concepts. He worked with this dog in short sessions throughout two days and videotaped its progress. At the end, Ramirez would show the dog an object, then ask him to go around obstacles on cue, either to the left or right, find a matching object which was hidden behind a piece of furniture and bring it back to him. Not only did this young dog complete the task, but he also loved the learning process. His tail was wagging and he was eager to get his instructions for the next task. This dog might have been turned into the shelter because he could not learn.

Throughout the weekend, we saw the amazing abilities of every sort of creature. Rats, ferrets and rabbits were following verbal directions and hand signals to accomplish rather complicated tasks. Fish followed a target stick and swam through a hoop.

Classes were available on dealing with aggressive behavior. There were also lots of offerings about training service and working dogs -- those who specialize in bomb and drug detection and those trained for search and rescue.

Most amazing is the animal's eagerness to learn. Clicker training is very positive. A wrong response is ignored. A correct response is clicked and rewarded with a tasty treat and verbal praise.

Those who have attended dog training classes over the past 20 or 30 years were taught to use a choke collar to jerk and pull on the leash in order to teach the dog to heel, sit or whatever. With positive clicker training, you can teach without a collar or leash. We too often use the leash as a tool instead of taking advantage of the dog's natural desire to learn, to do what we ask and please us. With constant jerking on the leash, the dog learns to do whatever is needed to avoid the torturous abuse on his neck.

Clickers are also used to teach people. Since parents don't want their children clicker trained, a different name is used but the results are amazing. TAG Teaching is used with golfers, gymnasts and dancers. A click means a particular move was correct. Research is being done on learning problems, and great strides are being made using the clicker with autistic children.

Karen Pryor, a pioneer in clicker training, began working with dolphins in the '60s and is bridging the gap between animal behaviorists like Conrad Lorenz and others who studied the psychology of learning. Using this combined knowledge opens doors and increases awareness of the potential not only of sea and land creatures, but also human beings. Go to clickertraining.com for more information.

An animal can learn any task that he is physically capable of learning. For example, a dog cannot be taught to talk because he is not physically capable of talking. But he can learn concepts of up or down, large or small, left or right, under or over, all using only positive reinforcement. A cat can learn to turn on a light. Teach your pet some fun trick using positive training and see how he loves it and begs for more.

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