How Clicker Training Dogs Works

A 2009 review of Reaching the Animal Mind by Karen Pryor, the trainer who popularized the term and practice of clicker training over three decades

Danger's ready for a loose-leash walk.     Photo: Grayson Schaffer

Reaching the Animal Mind.

In her new book, Reaching the Animal Mind ($25, Scribner), Karen Pryor offers a lively, wide-ranging overview of the use of operant conditioning for training, well, nearly any animal you can think of. Ms. Pryor is easily the best-recognized of clicker trainers, having popularized the term and practice over the last 30 years or so, starting with her hugely popular book Don’t Shoot the Dog. She uses her experience as a trainer of an enormous variety of animals—from hermit crabs to dolphins to people—to explain the technology of operant conditioning in an entertaining, insightful way. The book interweaves personal history, observation, and science to provide the reader with a profound understanding of how clicker training works, and how it allows communication between humans and other species in ways that other training methods cannot.

As most experienced clicker trainers have noticed, clicker training has some unusual properties. Training times are often dramatically reduced by the clicker; animals sometimes learn a new behavior after a single click. Generalization of trained behaviors is faster, and the clicker is excellent for addressing fear-related problems. And animals (and people) seem to find being trained with the clicker very motivating—much more fun than with reward-based training alone. Pryor went in search of explanations for these effects, interviewing neuroscientists and others in an effort to understand “how” clicker training works. This section of the book provides some tantalizing preliminary information on this topic, and I hope it will spark additional investigations in future.

Personally, I found the second to last chapter the most interesting, as it describes the application of clicker training to people. A recent development, “TAG” teaching (Teaching With Acoustical Guidance) is being used for everything from working with autistic children to improving golf swings to increasing efficiency on commercial fishing ships. We are animals, too, and the same principles of learning apply. With the addition of language to speed the process, TAG teaching provides a fun, efficient method to train people at many tasks.
 The gift that clicker training offers us, as Pryor eloquently describes, is the opportunity to enter into a mutually rewarding training relationship with animals, including people. When we remove force, pain, and domination from the learning process and substitute patience, respect, and communication, we open the door to true partnership. For anyone interested in training others, human or animal, this transition is crucial, and Reaching the Animal Mind provides an outstanding introduction to the philosophy and technology needed to get there.

This article originally appeared on Outside K9, the former dog blog of Outside magazine, on June 15, 2009.

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