How does operant conditioning apply to training dogs?

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Clicker training is both a training technique and a training philosophy. The term “clicker training” was coined by Karen Pryor, who helped bring clicker training to the world of dog training.

Clicker training is based on the learning theories described in psychologist B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. In clicker training, trainers use an event marker — usually a noisemaker such as a clicker –or a verbal maker, such as the word “yes”–to identify behaviors that they like. Then, after they mark the behavior, they reinforce the behavior, usually with a food treat. The theory of operant conditioning says that reinforced (rewarded) behaviors are more likely to be repeated behaviors.

A practical example: A trainer wants to teach his dog to sit. When the dog sits, the trainer clicks and gives the dog a treat. The click means “That behavior right there — that’s what I want!” and “A reward is coming.” If the trainer clicks and treats every time the dog sits, the dog will soon figure out that sitting earns a treat and begin offering the sit more often. The trainer then adds a cue, “Sit,” to the behavior.

Clicker training, the training philosophy, is more than using a clicker to train your animal. It’s a different way of thinking, a way of relating that creates a partnership that is reinforcing and pleasurable for both of you. As a philosophy, clicker training includes the works and ideas of Karen Pryor, Jean Donaldson, Bob and Marian Bailey, Turid Rugaas, Murray Sidman and others who believe it’s possible to train a dog, raise a family, or live a life based on reinforcement instead of coercion and force.

A WORD ABOUT THE EVENT MARKER: Both clickers and verbal markers are effective, but it’s important to know when to use what. For instance, Certified Dog Trainer Shelby Semel says dogs may well learn faster with a clicker, but she’ll only use it if she’s training the dog in a one-to-one session. “If the owners are around, though, you also need to teach them how to use a clicker and it may not be as efficient. In that case, I use verbal markers,” she says.

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