Hello! I’m glad you decided to check out my blog and find out what clicker training is all about.
So, what is clicker training?
Here is a great definition, by Karen Pryor, author of Reaching the Animal Mind (a great book to read for anyone, clicker trainer or not):
“Clicker training is an animal training method based on behavioural psychology that relies on marking a desirable behavior and rewarding it. Desirable behavior is usually marked by using a ‘clicker,’ a mechanical device that makes a short distinct ‘click’ sound, which tells the animal exactly when they are doing the right thing. This clear form of communication combined with positive reinforcement is an effective, safe and humane way to teach any animal any behavior that it is physically and mentally capable of doing.”
For those of you who are visual learners here is a fabulous fun video:
Clicker training was originally developed by marine mammal trainers partly because of the inability of the trainers to control the animals, which resulted in a different approach to training – a positive food reward. Food has been used in many training scenarios but what made this approach unique was the addition of a bridge (a signal that tells the animal when it has performed the correct behavior) in the form of a whistle. The whistle told the dolphins that they had done the right behavior and also told them that food was coming.
The trainers took the principle of shaping a behaviour (rewarding successive approximations of the end behaviour) combined this with the bridge and food reward and were able to teach very complex behaviours to animals that they could not physically control. (If you want to read more about fascinating training using clicker then Google Bob Bailey and read some amazing training tales.) So, if w e can train these wild animals without force or fear why can’t we train our horses (or dogs) this way? Well, we can and very successfully at that.
I am not going to delve into the dominance theories out there except to say research is now proving them wrong.
So, the click (called a bridge or marker signal) tells the horse the precise instant he has done what we want and the treat makes him want to perform that behaviour again. They soon figure out that they can do things that will earn them food! They can make the vending machine (you) feed them.
Now comes the ‘you can’t hand feed horses’ argument or they will get muggy, rude and pushy and even start to bite! I bet you think I will disagree with that statement. Well, I agree that inadvertent feeding of treats can lead to these problems. There have to be rules around feeding or they will try and ‘mug the vending machine’.
The clicker provides those rules. It tells the horse when he has earned a goodie from the vending machine. Without the rules that the clicker imposes on the horse’s behaviour they can get out of control around food. The foundation lessons, including food delivery mechanics and the practice of timing will help to make sure you both know and follow the rules that will set you both up for a great relationship.
Many will still say ‘Why bother with food?’ If we look at food as being the huge motivator it is for most horses (and animals) we are missing a great opportunity to use food as the powerful training tool it can be. We can use food to teach the emotional control we so desire in our horses.
To quote Alexandra Kurland, founder of ‘The Click That Teaches’:
“It’s just that we have learned the wrong lesson from our horse’s rude behavior (about food). The horses are trying to tell us what a good motivator food is. If I can harness them (treats) into my training program, I’m going to gain a very powerful tool, one I’d be foolish not to use. It’s like using an old fashioned typewriter. Yes I can get the job done using outdated technology but not nearly as well. That in a nutshell is what clicker training represents. It gives us technology to take one of the most powerful motivators in a horse’s life and put it to work for us.” (equusite.com)
Check back next week for a blog on how to get started, and don’t worry it won’t cost you a fortune in gear and gimmicks to do it. You don’t need to sell your horse and buy a better one, you don’t even need a barn or indoor arena and you can do it all year even when you can’t ride! And to top it off it will help your horse get sounder and keep sounder in his mind and body, something we all would like. (It does it for us too!) I hope you will join me in the following weeks and try it for yourself.
Warning: clicker training and the use of positive reinforcement if embraced can become a way of life, a belief system that will color your interactions with all the beings in your life. It is so much more than it appears to be on the surface.