“Clicker Training” Without a Clicker?

Casey LomonacoBefore we begin, a heartfelt thanks to Kevin for inviting me on board for this edition of Dog Lover’s Digest!  Those of you who know me know that I am a clicker trainer, and those of you who do not know me now know I’m a clicker trainer.  But you can clicker train without a clicker; clickers are simply among the most popular of event markers/conditioned reinforcers.  Let’s explore the two functions of a clicker.

The clicker is an event marker: An event marker is a stimulus which bridges the time period between the behavior and the delivery of reinforcement.

The clicker is a conditioned reinforcer: A conditioned reinforcer is a neutral stimulus which gains reinforcement value from reliable and consistent pairing with a primary reinforcer through classical conditioning.

As an event marker, a click communicates to the learner, “Yes, I like that!  Do it more often!”  As a conditioned reinforcer, the clicker is a promise that reinforcement is on the way.

While a clicker is my favorite event marker for a number of reasons, I use a variety of other markers in my own dogs and with my client’s dogs.  My dogs respond to a number of conditioned markers including:

  • The clicker
  • A “click” with my tongue
  • A light squeeze at the tip of the ear
  • A visual pointing signal
  • An exaggerated sigh

My choice of event marker may depend on the environment or the behavior I’m working on.  I find my clicker gets my dogs too excited to work on relaxation behaviors, so I then use my “dramatic” sigh.  Sometimes the environment is loud – a tactile marker will work well in these instances.  Forgot your clicker?  Use your tongue!  Training multiple dogs?  Using a finger point as an event marker will allow you to isolate a single dog that has earned reinforcement within the group.  I once worked with a dog that was both blind and deaf – we used a vibration collar conditioned as a marker when the dog was far away, and a tap on the toe when the dog was close by.  I’ve used the flicker of a flash light with a dog that was deaf.

I’d like to talk today about some of the characteristics of a good event marker.  Good event markers should be:

  • Unique:  This is the criteria where many verbal markers (OK!) fail if not used appropriately.  You want your marker to be something that the dog does not hear in any context other than as an event marker which predicts the delivery of reinforcement.
  • Verbal markers should be one or two syllables long and consonant-heavy.  You should choose a single word, rather than a sentence.  At best, it should be a word you do not say often (or ever) in conversation.  At least, it should be said in a particular, consistent tone every time it is used as an event marker.
  • Salient – a good event marker should be easily perceived by the dog in the working environment.  A flash light shone on the ground in front of a deaf dog may be a great marker at night – a visual finger point may be preferable during the day.
  • Not be confused with existing cues or praise.  Praise is not an event marker.  For some dogs, it is a reinforcement, but it is not an event marker as it doesn’t generally fit any of these criteria.  “That’s it!” will not be a good event marker for a dog if “sit” is a verbal cue for the dog to put his rear on the floor – they sound too similar.
  • This last one is just my personal preference, but I like event markers to be consistent with the emotional state I’m trying to achieve in a lesson.  As I mentioned, my dogs get really excited when they hear the clicker, so when we are working on exercises where I want them to chill out and relax on their mats for an extended period of time, of if I’m giving “bio-feedback” by marking and rewarding indications of relaxation (blinking, lowering of the head, relaxing onto a hip or their side, sighing, etc.), I want to use an event marker which will not automatically cause them to become aroused.

I’m always hoping to learn ideas and recommendations for new event markers.  What event markers have you used successfully?  What event markers do your dogs currently respond to, and if you use different event markers in different contexts, please explain how in the comments!

Casey is a behavior and training consultant, professional author, and lecturer located in upstate New York. She is the owner of Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training in Binghamton. You can visit her website at www.rewardingbehaviors.com and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rewardingbehaviors.