Charging the Clicker

charging the clicker

Charging the clicker does not mean plugging one in! Instead, it means creating a training association to it so it can be used for animal training.

Learning how to begin clicker training, or how to charge a clicker, is laying the foundation for training an animal. This means that the animal needs to understand just what the clicker indicates.

Clicker Clarity

The clicker is used as event marker. Simply put, that means that it “marks” the behavior and signals the animal that he or she has given the desired response.

It is also used as an IOU that communicates to the animal that a reward is coming.

When you get deeper into behavior modification and the training of behaviors, the clicker itself becomes reinforcing. It becomes what is known as a conditioned reinforcer aka a secondary reinforcer.

But these terms are for those into more advanced training–what you need to know is that it is a vital communication tool to add to your arsenal.

Although you can train an animal with different markers (see this clicker training post for other options), the clicker works well because it is not associated with anything else.

Unlike your voice or specific words, the noise is unique and so can quickly and clearly communicate to the animal that he or she has responded with the correct response. (This happens once the animal understands the association.)

But to accomplish that, you have to train that association. The clicker by itself means nothing to an animal until you pair it (create an association) with something.

Ideally you pair the clicker with something of high value to the animal such as food. This process is most commonly referred to as charging the clicker.

Clicker Training Rewards

In clicker training for dogs, most people use treats but it doesn’t always have to be food, just something that is highly reinforcing to the particular critter.

The first part is to select the best reinforcer. This item should be something of high value–meaning a really, really, really desirable that the canine goes crazy for.

Something that your pet dog might be insane about could be a certain type of treat, a toy, playtime, or _?_ (You name the option.)

In this case, let’s take a look at food choices.

Dog trainers use a variety of different treats for this and some might include

  • cheese,
  • hot dog bits,
  • freeze dried meat pieces (any sort),
  • jerky treats,
  • junk food treats,
  • or perhaps sliced carrots.

Personally, I find that the Wellness products known as Well Bites & Pure Rewards are highly motivating commercial choices. Of course I use others but refer to these jokingly as “canine crack.” Why? Because when I did a comparison between commercial choices, most dogs loved them and would do almost anything to earn them. That is what makes them an ideal choice.

When it comes to treats in training, my main rule is this:

Animal Training Treats = Quick Flavor Burst

In this case, the idea is not to feed the dog but to give the dog a quick blast of flavor. This flavor burst rewards what just occurred and keeps the animal focused on the training and not the food.

So, with that in mind, here are my rules.

  • Training treats should not require chewing.

Dry kibble, dog bones, or biscuit treats are not usually good choices because they require chewing. Freeze dried items or fresh jerky might be used, if and only if…

  • Training treats should be easily broken into very small tidbits.

Break any treats down to about the size of a pea, or a single corn kernel. If you do that, just about anything can be used.

  • Training treat supply should be made ready in advance of the training session.

Delays in delivering a treat after a click, or the failure to have enough treats, can mess up the training session. I like to have a lot on hand, the rest can be stored for later use.

Click N’ Charge

To “charge the clicker” there are a few rules to follow. When you are more advanced, you can shortcut, but in the beginning, here is what you need to know.

  • Every click is followed by a treat.

In the beginning treat delivery is paired with each and every click. No exceptions or you create confusion.

  • Use some variation in delivery and location.

I like to do specific sessions to charge the clicker. It usually means click-treat, click-treat, click-treat for a minimum number of times. Some trainers say 20 times but I gauge it by the pet. For most people, this usually occurs over multiple sessions.

Clicker Charging Cautions

When charging the clicker, it is important to vary how you deliver the treat, where you deliver the treat, and to make sure you are not reinforcing a certain behavior.

  • Create the connection and don’t reward bad behavior during the process.

For instance, if the dog paws or nudges you in order to get a treat, you would need to end the session and not click or reward.

In many cases you can just click-treat, click-treat and then move off to something else and try it in another location later. Remember that you can also click right before you feed an animal or give it a treat.

To avoid trouble, be careful not to click when the animal stares only at the clicker, or only at the food.

My personal preference is to teach an animal to look into my eyes and then click. I might make noises with my mouth and click and then treat when the animal looks at me–but you don’t have to be so formal.

Instead, just make sure that you deliver the treat from different locations. For instance, sometimes you might deliver the treat from your hand, toss the treat to the dog, drop the treat on the floor, or pull it out of a pocket or out of a pouch behind your back.

If you take these precautions, you will help to reduce the focus on the delivery of the treats.

Now I also tend to use key phrases with training. One of my favorites is, “It is time for school!” This gives the animal a different indicator about a session than just grabbing a clicker.

My animal students get really excited when I ask, “Do you want to go to school?”

When the animal understands the concept, you will see a change in the dog’s interest level. Sometimes a dog will wag its tail, bark or give subtle signals–such as moving the ears forward in interest.

Training should be fun and once the clicker is charged, you will have an animal that is indeed ready to start school.

Okay, so now it is your turn. Go try this and pay attention to what is happening. Then report back.

If you are already involved in this type of process, please share how you started and just what signaled the “lightbulb moment of understanding.”

Behavior Training Buddies

animal behavior training

Behavior Training Buddies?

Today I had the pleasure of a long talk about training with another animal professional who was my college buddy at one of the animal behavior training programs I graduated from.

We’ve kept in touch on and off through the years and he is one of the few people I can get really get into the nitty gritty discussions about behavior & training.

He trained dolphins in the open ocean for about twenty years but today works with dogs and is actually studying to enter into a new career.

Over the years we have passionately discussed our most difficult cases, our frustrations and our successes.

This most recent conversation blossomed when he asked me about a particular challenge and I began asking questions.

Later he said, “It is such a pleasure talking to another trainer who gets it. Most others just jump in with recommendations or advice–but you get it.

Most people want answers, but to get the answers, you have to ask questions.

You see, in order to solve an animal behavior training problem, it involves much more than just giving a pat answer to solve the problem because you are dealing with a living creature. Things are a bit more involved than a quick fix.

In ideal situations it is necessary to assess the animal, the environment, the trainer(s), the animal’s history and the social environment.

However, since I’ve been in my career with animals for so long, I’ve found that if I can get my questions answered, I don’t always have to be onsite.

Now, when I say that it is more involved that a quick fix, I am not saying that some problems cannot be solved quickly, but to really extinguish a problem and prevent it from escalating (or coming back), it is a more involved process.

Some people miss the art of animal training while others miss the science of animal training.

Then there are those that cling tightly to the science of it and believe that it is all the same.

Hogwash. The reality is that it is a blend of art and science.

Anyway, we eventually got to discussing the differences between skilled trainers and those who aspire to be.

This came up because his case involved someone who had been around a lot of animals for a long, long time.

Plus, during this time she has been training dogs. However, despite her extensive time investment and work with a large number of animals, she still is not very sophisticated and sadly, not too savvy about training.

Now I pondered over this before in the lens people see animals through but just why most people cannot identify the nuances of animal communication is a mystery to both of us.

Part of this is due to the fact that we have been in the field for so long, but the big quandary is over why so many “professionals” don’t get it either.

So just what is it that makes some people better than others in their chosen field?

  • Is it aptitude?
  • Is it passion fueled motivation to acquire the skills?
  • Is it something that can be learned?
  • Is it sheer numbers of animals trained?
  • Is it diversity of species or breeds trained?

It would be great if those questions could be answered, yes. Sadly, that is not the case.

Some trainers get attached to specific tools or methodologies and cling tightly to them rather than experiment and progress.

Others find some new marketing angle and introduce it as something new, but truth be told, I have not seen much new in the animal training field for quite some time.

Most people cannot distinguish between a trainer who is great and someone who is simply adequate.

Anyway, here is a formula I was given just last week:

Talent + Knowledge + Experience = Proficiency (aka Skill or Strength)

It reminded me of something I often say, “Anyone can train but not everyone has talent…

In any case, that is what I think gives someone an edge over others.

Now I’ve written my thoughts on some of this before, so you might also like to read how animal training is like piano playing, but I want to ask you, What makes one trainer good and another great?

Please share your opinion in the comments.

Photo Credit: Marion Doss