The origins of clicker training were based on a science and a technology developed by of one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, B.F. Skinner. Skinner’s entire system is based on something called operant conditioning, Stephen G. King, a dog behaviour specialist with an interest in clicker training, explains.
To understand the mechanics of operant conditioning, imagine a rat in a cage. A special cage (called, in fact, a “Skinner box”) that has a bar or pedal on one wall that, when pressed, causes a little mechanism to release a food pellet into the cage. The rat is bouncing around the cage, doing whatever it is rats do, when he accidentally presses the bar and -- hey, presto! -- a food pellet falls into the cage!
The operant is the behaviour just prior to the food pellet falling into the rat’s possession. This is called ‘the reinforcer’. In no time at all, the rat is furiously peddling away at the bar, hoarding his pile of pellets in the corner of the cage.
So, how does this translate to what we know as clicker training for dogs today?
In plain and simple terms, a behaviour followed by a reinforcing stimulus results in an increased probability of that behaviour occurring in the future. Just like when you were a baby and you worked out if you wailed your little heart out, Mummy was likely to be on hand within seconds attending to your every whim! You learn a behaviour which produces, in this case, a pleasurable or desirable outcome.
What dog trainers refer to today as clicker training, is actually a slang term for Applied Operant Conditioning, which was initially developed on the foundations of Skinner’s work more than sixty years ago by a trio called Keller Breland, Marian Breland-Bailey and Bob Bailey who ran a company called Animal Behaviour Enterprises (ABE) which started in 1943.
ABE trainers trained more than 140 different species, and tens of thousands of animals including Dogs, Cats. Parrots, Dolphins, Crows, Seagulls, Rabbits and even Chickens and they are recognised as the first company to use operant conditioning in this way.
Somehow however, the technology did not transfer from these early pioneer trainers to the general public until 1992 when Karen Pryor, Gary Wilkes, Gary Priest, and Ingrid Kang-Shallenberger got together at a seminar for operant conditioning animal trainers.
Don’t worry about getting things wrong. Clicker training is so forgiving and so much fun for everyone that you don’t have to worry about mistakes. They won’t interfere with the training in the long run. Clicker training is a worldwide phenomenon and each country now has numerous trainers and behaviour specialists using applied operant condition, clicker training. It’s a technique that works and it’s here to stay so why not see if you can click your dog into action?
Have you tried and had successes with clicker training? Let us know your own techniques, we'd love to hear from you!