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What is operant conditioning?




"Clicker training" is a shorthand term for "operant conditioning with positive reinforcement", a method of behavior modification based on the original research by the founder of behaviorism, B. F. Skinner. The theory of operant conditioning states that behavior is modified by its consequences. For more about operant conditioning, see an article on this website.

Clicker training is a method of operant conditioning with positive reinforcement that uses a marker signal, also called a bridging stimulus, or bridge.

The marker signal is any signal that the animal can easily perceive. Many trainers use a clicker, a small mechanical device which makes a sharp metallic sound. It is given at the precise moment when the behavior occurs.

The marker signal is a conditioned reinforcer. This means that in the beginning stages of training the marker signal (click) is paired with a primary reinforcer, something that the animal desires strongly enough to be willing to work for it. In most cases it is food, although petting, scratching, or play are valued higher than food by some learners.

illustration of conditioned reinforcer

The animal learns that when it hears the click, it means that the primary reinforcer is coming. The use of the marker signal allows for great precision in the timing of reinforcement. It also resolves the problem of time lapse between the instance of behavior and the instance of delivery of primary reinforcer. The animal is not left to guess what behavior it is being reinforced for. This clarity allows for rapid learning and lower levels of stress and frustration.

Brief history

Laboratory research by B. F. Skinner lay the foundation of behaviorism, a branch of animal behavior science that lies at the basis of modern clicker training practice.

Clicker training owes its emergence as a practical training method to Karen Pryor, who was first to use a marker signal coupled with positive reinforcement in training porpoises and other marine animals in the 1960's. She was instrumental to spreading clicker training into the dog training world.

Nowadays, clicker training has received a wide recognition among pet animal trainers, keepers and trainers of captive animals at research and public facilities, and even some sports coaches, as a highly effective and humane training method that opens new, previously unavailable possibilities for learning, communication, and cooperation.

Why use clicker training?

Here are some highlights of what clicker training offers to an animal trainer:

Humane. Clicker training removes the need for coercion. It relies on positive reinforcement as the primary means of obtaining a desired behavior. The learner receives instant feedback on every correct response and is rewarded for the effort. He becomes an enthusiastic participant of his own training.

Scientific. Operant conditioning is one of the ways animals and people learn. Clicker training is a practical application of behavioral principles.

Effective. Far from a feelgood diversion for idle animal lovers, clicker training is a highly practical and efficient training method. It is used by people whose occupation leaves no space for frivolous pastime, such as those who work with wild animals kept in captivity for research, education, and conservation purposes. Thanks to clicker training, such formerly stressful and even dangerous husbandry procedures as moving between enclosures and medical treatment become peaceful, cooperative, and reliable.

Holistic. Focus on the positive and groundedness in behavioral principles have profound repercussions for the view on animal training and human-animal relationships in general. Clicker training practice allows for more communication, cooperation, and compassion between human and animal, highlighting our basic similarities, rather than differences. Clicker training can be just a training tool, but many practitioners find that, in the words of one equine clicker trainer, it becomes "a state of mind".



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