What Is Clicker Training?
Posted on March 29, 2018
Written By Alexandra Kurland
There’s always more to say! Here’s your bonus material for Podcast #3: Ending Well
You can listen to the audio via the soundcloud player or read it here in the Equiosity Library. Enjoy!
The term clicker training was coined by Karen Pryor. In it’s simplest form it refers to applied operant conditioning in which a marker signal is paired with positive reinforcement. In other words, if you like what your animal is doing, you click and reinforce him.
For years at clinics I’ve had people say to me you really need to call your work something other than clicker training. What you do is so much more than clicker training.
I always throw this right back to them. What would you call it?
I get lots of suggestions but nothing so far has stuck. So many of the words that describe my work have been used, abused, and over-used. Or they are too specific to a narrow area of horse training.
Harmony, balance, partnership have all been used so many times by so many different approaches to training they have lost any meaning. You can have two diametrically opposed training systems both talking about partnership. They’ll end up with very different looking horses and each group will be convinced they have “true partnership” and the others don’t. Sigh. Labels can leave behind a huge and very controversial mine field to navigate.
When I first came across clicker training in 1993, it had no associations attached to it. It was just a label, a way of referencing a particular approach to training. I had not seen other clicker-trained horses because there weren’t any around. I hadn’t yet experimented with it, so I brought no strong biases to the term – good or bad. It was simply a label, a convenient way to reference a system of training in which a marker signal was paired with positive reinforcement.
For me the term “clicker training” is still a convenient way to refer to a system of training that uses a marker signal, but it has grown to have many more associations for me and for others. If someone has seen clicker training applied badly, just the mention of the name may send them over the edge into a long diatribe against it.
I’ve seen plenty of clumsy, not well-thought-out clicker training sessions over the years, but that doesn’t make me want to run from the label. It makes me want to find better ways to teach the work.
What Clicker Training Means To Me
I’ve experienced so much joy both in my own horses and in sharing the work with others that I don’t want to walk away from the label. Instead I want to make it clearer what clicker training can be. I don’t know what clicker training has come to mean to others, but to me, when I think of clicker-trained horses, I see happy, well mannered, beautifully balanced horses who are a joy to be around.My clicker-trained horses make me smile. I hope how I handle them gives my horses the equine equivalent of those happy feelings. That’s what I want to share with others.
In 1993 when I started experimenting with clicker training, I didn’t head out to the barn thinking – “I’m going to write a book about this.” I just wanted to find a way to keep my horse, Peregrine entertained while he was on stall rest.
There weren’t other people clicker training horses who I could turn to as role models or who could provide how-to instructions. That meant I got to invent my own version of clicker training.
Defining Clicker Training
If you were to ask me to define clicker training, I would begin with Karen Pryor’s definition: clicker training is applied operant conditioning in which a marker signal is paired with positive reinforcement.
That gives us an operational definition, but clicker training is so much more than that. I see it as a huge umbrella under which I can fit many different approaches to horse training. For example, I studied for a time with Linda Tellington-Jones, the founder of TTEAM, so I fit her training under the umbrella. I also put the work I learned from John Lyons under this same umbrella even though Lyons himself is not a clicker trainer. These two training methods represent fundamentally different philosophies of horse training, but I was able to draw good things from both and adapt what I learned to fit under my clicker umbrella.
When I think of clicker training, I see a complete and very structured approach to training that results in well-mannered, happy horses. I think of beautifully-balanced horses who are both having fun and are fun to be around.
That’s what I see. But if all you’ve seen of clicker training is someone using it to teach simple tricks, you may see the fun – but not the balance. Or maybe you’ve just seen someone who was fumbling around the edges of clicker training. Your picture of clicker training may be a frustrated horse who is acting aggressively towards the handler.
Creating Stepping Stones
The more people who encounter clicker training the more different images of what it is there will be. Clicker training will evolve and morph into something else. That’s the nature of all creative work. It is never static. Clicker training, which seemed so revolutionary, so very much on the leading edge of training when I first encountered it, will become mainstream. It will be the stepping stone to the next leading-edge idea.
We can’t yet know what that idea will be, not until it has had time to evolve.
This is the nature of the creative process. Humans thrive on creativity. This is part of play. You are exploring two separate ideas and suddenly you see how you can put them together to create a completely original combination. Both ideas by themselves were great. Combined they are transforming.
So let’s look underneath the clicker training umbrella and see what’s really there. Let’s also ask the question: are you a clicker trainer, or are you someone who just uses a clicker? And what is the difference that question is seeking to answer?
Are You a Clicker Trainer?
I will say straight out – I am a clicker trainer. But in 1993 when I first went out to the barn with treats and a clicker in my pocket, I was simply someone who was curious about clicker training. I began, as we all do, by simply using clicker training. Over time I became a clicker trainer. What were the dots that had to connect up to turn me into a clicker trainer, and what does that mean?
There are a great many people who come across clicker training, take a quick look and never give it a try. There are lots of reasons for this. They may have been taught that you should never use treats in training; that the horses should work for you out of respect and because you have shown them that you are a good leader; that predators may work for rewards, but horses are grazing animals and it isn’t natural to hand feed them.
You may find yourself sputtering, wanting to say but, but, but this is all nonsense. Save your breath. If someone is deeply entrenched in these belief systems, no amount of evidence to the contrary is going to change their mind. You’ll only get yourself worked up into a not very clicker-compatible argument.
If someone takes a look and walks the other way, don’t worry about it. Clicker training doesn’t have to be everyone’s “cup of tea”. Some people have to bump into clicker training a few times before it will attract their notice enough to give it a try. Maybe the first horse they saw being clicker trained was still in the early stages and everything looked like a muddle. But now they’ve seen a bit more, and they’re ready to give it a try.
What matters more than trying to argue someone into giving it a try is keeping the door open for those who get curious.
So what does finally begin to tip the balance? What brings people to clicker training?
Why Clicker Train? The Science Foundation
For some the first attraction is that clicker training is science based. It’s development can be traced back to B.F. Skinner’s work. Now for some this is an instant turn off. They’ve taken psych courses in school. They equate Skinner with a cold and unfeeling approach to behavior. I don’t want to get drawn into that argument. What animal trainers took from his work can be simplified down into the ABCs of training.
That translates into this:
Antecedents are events and conditions that immediately precede Behavior. The Behavior occurs, and it is followed by Consequences. And it is the consequences which determine whether that behavior is more or less likely to occur again.
We tend to look at antecedents for causes. We say “sit” and our dog sits. It seems on the surface that it was the cue that caused the behavior. But why did the dog respond to the cue? Why did he sit? Was it because he has learned that when he hears that word, if he plunks his rear end to the ground, good things happen? You give him goodies and lots of desired attention. That makes “sit” a true cue.
Or was it because he’s learned that if he doesn’t sit when he’s told to, he’s corrected? You scold him as you jerk on his lead or push his rear end to the ground. He sits the next time to avoid the negative consequences. That makes “sit” a command.
Remember the difference? Commands have a do it or else threat backing them up. Cues indicate opportunities for reinforcement. Reinforcers and punishers are the consequences that determine if a behavior is more or less likely to occur again.
The cues we use can be thought of as releasers. Say “trot” to your horse, and that tells him that changing gait into a trot is the fast track to reinforcement.
The cue triggers behavior. What happens as a consequence of the behavior makes the animal more or less likely to repeat it in the future.
People often define clicker training as operant conditioning thinking they are differentiating clicker training from other forms of training. Operant conditioning includes the study/use of punishment, as well as reinforcement. Clicker trainers work hard to avoid the active use of punishment, but so do many good trainers. What sets clicker training apart is the use of a marker signal paired with positive reinforcement.
Three Blind Men and the Elephant
When people talk about Skinner’s work, I am always reminded of the fable of the three blind men and the elephant.
Three blind men came upon an elephant. The first felt the elephant’s tail. “The elephant is like a rope,” he declared. The second blind man encountered the elephant’s leg. “You are totally wrong. The elephant is like a tree.” The third blind man got a hold of the elephant’s trunk. “What nonsense you are both talking. The elephant is clearly like a snake! Any fool can tell that.”
In the original fable the three blind men get into a fight because none of them could imagine that the others could be right, that depending upon their perspective they could each come to different conclusions.
What people take away from Skinner is very much like this. Talk to some and you will hear that Skinner’s contributions to science are on a par with Darwin’s. Others will say he held back progress in their field for decades. For animal trainers, Skinner’s work gave us the breakthrough we needed to communicate more clearly with our animals. It gave us marker signals and with them the concept of shaping behavior.
The use of marker signals grew out of an unintended consequence. When a rat pressed a lever, the automatic feeders made a clicking sound as food was released. The click was originally just part of the apparatus, so you could say that all the innovations clicker training has brought us are the result of a happy accident.
Modern Animal Training
It is the norm to see something new, and at first to try to turn it back into something you are already familiar with. So it is very understandable that people would come to very different conclusions about what Skinner was saying. All of us who encounter his work bring our own perspective and biases to it. What you take from it depends in part upon what you bring to it.
What animal trainers took from it was the power of the marker signal, and an understanding that it is consequences that drive behavior.
What has evolved is a modern science-based approach to training. We aren’t just relying on anecdotal stories for choosing a particular training solution. We can test our choices. We can refer back to the studies being done by behavior analysts. We can say, with data to back us up, that punishment produces negative side effects
It’s the old joke – what’s the one thing three trainers can agree on? That the fourth trainer is all wrong. Everyone thinks their methods are the best. With clicker training we can examine the statements we make about training. We can design studies and produce data to help us understand why our animals respond in the way that they do.
We can look at different schedules of reinforcement, at reinforcement variability, at the effect of punishment on response, etc. We aren’t following a particular system of training because someone tells us this is natural, or traditional, or the way it is always done. As clicker trainers our “best practice” choices have evolved out of what research into behavior suggests really does work best.
Science is what brought me to clicker training, but for many people that is not the principle draw. Yes, it is reassuring that others have thought about schedules of reinforcement, etc. to develop current best practice, but what appeals to them is what grows out of this work – namely a great relationship. That’s the real joy and magic of clicker training.
Written by Alexandra Kurland – Copyright 2018
This article was selected to accompany podcast #3: Ending Well
These articles we are sharing with the podcasts are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training. If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at: