Learning is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “the activity or process of gaining knowledge or skill by studying, practicing, being taught, or experiencing something.” Dogs learn in a very similar way to us, through conditioning. Just like children, puppies begin learning at a very early age. Behavioral studies show that an eight-week-old puppy has the learning ability of an adult dog, making it an ideal time to start training. There is an old saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” The euphemism has some merit to it in that the ease of learning does decrease starting around 16 weeks old, but training never stops and your older dog is still very capable of learning new tricks!
To make training easier, I want to detail some facts about how dogs learn. Once you understand how they think and the way they look at life, training will go much smoother for both of you. The way you interact with your dog may change for the better after you understand and put into action these techniques. It will become second nature over time and communicating with your dog and others will improve drastically. This one’s a long one so strap in and get your notepads ready!
Classical Conditioning– (also known as Pavlovian conditioning)conditioning in which the conditioned stimulus is paired with and precedes the unconditioned stimulus until the conditioned stimulus alone is sufficient to elicit the response. MedlinePlus Medical Dictionary
- Take for example, Ivan Pavlov, he struck a bell each time his dogs were fed. The bell rang in association with their meal, and the dogs began to associate the sound with the arrival of food. With the use of classical conditioning, salivation became an automatic response to the sound of the bell. They didn’t choose to salivate, but rather the expectation and desire for food caused it. This is learning through association.
Operant Conditioning– (also known as instrumental learning) conditioning in which the desired behavior or increasingly closer approximations to it are followed by a rewarding or reinforcing stimulus. MedlinePlus Medical Dictionary
- B.F. Skinner, a Harvard psychologist, coined the term operant conditioning. It’s similar to classical conditioning in that the stimulus (bell) is paired with a reinforcer (food), but differs because that stimulus is then used to teach animals specific behaviors. The animal is aware of what they’re doing and offers a behavior deliberately in order to receive the reinforcer. Skinner called this the Principle of Reinforcement. This is learning through consequence. Consequences increase or decrease a specific behavior.
Counter Conditioning– conditioning in order to replace an undesirable response to a stimulus by a favorable one. MedlinePlus Medical Dictionary
- The work of many scientists led to the development of counter conditioning. One example of an experiment dealing with this type of learning and association is known as the “Little Peter experiment.” Mary Cover Jones, a pioneer in behavioral therapy, used desensitization and conditioning to eliminate the fear of rabbits in a three-year-old boy. Starting about 12 feet away from Peter, Cover Jones gradually moved the rabbit closer and closer to him while presenting him with his favorite food-candy. As a result of the positive association between candy and the rabbit, Peter overcame his fear and was even able to pet the rabbit.
Four Quadrants of Operant Conditioning
Reinforcement and punishment, paired with positive or negative usage, comprise the four quadrants of operant conditioning: positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative reinforcement, and negative punishment. Positive and negative in this sense mean add or subtract as opposed to good or bad.
Reinforcer– something that increases the probability of a desired response
Positive reinforcement means something desirable was added to increase the frequency of a behavior.
- Ex: A dog sits, you click, and they get a treat.
- Ex: You go to work all month and are reinforced by getting your paycheck.
Negative reinforcement means an aversive stimulus was removed in order to increase a behavior.
- Ex: A dog runs away and an electric shock is given until the dog returns. The return makes the negative stimulus go away.
- Ex: Your alarm clock goes off until you wake up and turn it off. The behavior of getting up makes the negative stimulus go away.
Punishment– something that decreases the probability of a desired response
Positive punishment adds a stimulus to decrease a behavior.
- Ex: Your dog pulls on the leash and the choke chain tightens around its neck.
- Ex: You don’t comply with the speed limit and get pulled over and receive a ticket.
Negative punishment is when a dog’s behavior makes a good thing go away.
- Ex: You are petting your dog and suddenly they jump up on you. You turn and walk away and the petting ends.
- Ex: You missed a payment on your new car and now it is being repossessed.
Using Punishment Appropriately
Force-based trainers primarily use positive punishment to “show the dog who’s boss.” This method works, as proven by the hundreds of dogs that were trained with these methods before we knew there was a better way, but it can be problematic. Independent or assertive dogs may decide to challenge the leadership role when they get tired of being pushed around. Timid and soft dogs don’t do well with positive punishment; the use of force can cause them to completely shut down. There is also the concern for the health issues that can be brought about by the forceful handling of dogs.
As positive trainers, our goal is to stay in the positive reinforcement quadrant, but sometimes there is a need to use negative punishment. Positive training is an entirely different philosophy than coercion and force-based training. It strives to get the dog to offer a desired behavior instead of forcing them to do what we want. The idea is that your dog will be excited to work in order to receive the desired reward. It will also extinguish behaviors that don’t bring a desired reward.
According to Kenneth and Debbie Martin in their book, Puppy Start Right, in order for punishment to be used effectively, four criteria must be met:
- Punishment must be delivered immediately (within half a second of the undesirable behavior)
- Punishment must occur every time the unwanted behavior occurs
- Punishment, by definition, must be of a sufficient intensity to stop the behavior
- Punishment should not be associated with the owner or handler of the dog
These criteria make it very difficult to administer punishment effectively, and it becomes abuse if not done correctly. Punishment doesn’t teach your dog what to do. The dog will not think about the behavior they should have chosen instead of what they were actually doing.
Dogs, in general, are extremely smart and have a desire to please their human. Instead of using punishment that can destroy the human-canine bond, motivation should be used to increase the behaviors we like and build an incredible bond that can’t be broken.
Stimulus control occurs when an organism behaves in one way in the presence of a given stimulus and another way in its absence. A conditioned stimulus becomes a discriminative cue when it is followed by a specific learned behavior. In order to achieve stimulus control with your dog, you must remember that dogs do not generalize well. Simply put just because they perform a behavior reliably in your living room doesn’t mean that the behavior will carry over to other locations, such as the park, your friend’s house, or a pet store. In order to ensure your dog understands the behavior and cue, you must train in multiple places, at multiple times to achieve reliability from your dog.
A dog must learn to discriminate between cues. This means when you say “shake,” the dog raises his paw and shakes your hand. When you say “sit,” the dog sits. If your dog sits, shakes, and performs other previously learned behaviors when asked to perform just one, they haven’t learned to discriminate between cues.
Your dog has successfully learned a cue that is under stimulus control when they can perform the behavior, and only that behavior, when cued during a training session.
Now you know a ton of definitions, but you’re still wondering WHY you should use a clicker and how it works.
The reason you needed to know the previous definitions is because they tell us that our brains can be trained, and they tell us how. The good Lord programs our brains, to help us out with behaviors we perform on a regular basis. We create shortcuts, neural pathways, in our brains so we don’t have to think about every step, every time.
We see examples of these types of conditioned responses in soldiers when they return home from war. Many have difficulties with loud noises, and immediately duck and take cover at any loud and abrupt sound. They associate the noise with danger; there was a need to take cover to protect themselves, so the brain created a shortcut to make the response to loud noises quicker, turning it into a reflex. It was crucial for the brain to skip the middle stuff. A soldier doesn’t have time to interpret the noise, look around for danger, note other soldiers that may be injured, and then choose to take cover. This would not be an effective way to stay safe in that environment.
The soldiers didn’t plan for this response to become a reflex. They didn’t even know it was happening. This is why it is imperative to consider everything you do with your dog as training. Pathways are forming whether we intend for them to or not. Every verbal and physical reaction you give your dog is being filed away in their brain.
Research in neurophysiology has shown us that sudden sharp sounds and flashes of light reach the amygdala first, and then proceed on to the cortex, which is the thinking part of the brain. Other research has shown us that conditioned fear responses are processed in the amygdala and are characterized by a pattern of very rapid learning and long-term retention. This process of starting in the amygdala before continuing to the thinking part of the brain is a type of survival mechanism. It often only takes one experience for a conditioned fear response to be formed, and it will likely be a life-long fear. Clicker training takes advantage of these survival pathways in a positive way for rapid and long-term learning.
Since the sound of a clicker reaches the same part of the brain that processes and forms conditioned fear responses clicker trainers see long retention, rapid learning, and positive surges of emotion.
Another advantage to a clicker is the timing of the event marker. A trainer can mark the exact behavior they want to increase much quicker and clearer with a clicker than with a word such as “good” or “yes.” The click also lacks any emotion that can interfere with the dog’s interpretation of the word. Dogs don’t speak English. Your tone means more than the actual word you’re saying. If you say “no” in an excited voice, you will get a wagging tail. If you say “yes” in a stern and low voice, the dog is likely to cower down. A click sounds the same, and means the same thing, every time.
So now that you’re all edumacated up on the science behind it, get clicking!!! If you want even more of this informative stuff Barbara Schoening, a German scientist and veterinary neurophysiologist, and Karen Pryor, a leader in positive reinforcement training, continue to study the why and how of clicker training. Click here to see their research, The Neurophysiology of Clicker Training.
•• Special thanks to my neighbor, Kasee, and her pup, Skyy, for taking some great pictures for my blog! I’m at the lake and my mom is babysitting my dogs!
Enjoy some quick videos of things a few of my dogs learned with clicker training: