Operant Conditioning: Should You Clicker Train Your Pet?

Posted by Stacey Venzel
Dog Training

Appropriate animal behavior can be communicated to your pet with positive reinforcement using a clicker. Is it the right tool for you and your pet?

Operant conditioning embodies a positive and negative reward system for effective behavioral training. Positive reinforcement involves giving something likable to increase an animal's readiness to perform a task. Clicker training is one such example.

There are technically four tenets of tiered operant conditioning: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. Positive doesn't necessarily mean good and negative doesn't always signify bad.

Instead, remember that positive is the addition of something, like the plus sign in a math problem. On the other hand, negative is the subtraction of something, as with the minus sign in algebra.

Punishment and reinforcement relate to the behavior, not the reward. If you want to decrease a behavior from occurring, it is referred to as punishment. Increasing a behavior involves reinforcement.

Dmitriy K/Flickr
Dmitriy K/Flickr

An example of negative punishment in child rearing is sending a kid to bed without dinner. The parent takes away something good so that the behavior won't happen again. In pets, electric shock collars are an example of positive punishment, giving something unwanted to the pet to lessen the likelihood of the activity reoccurring.

In animal training, positive reinforcement is most often employed. It can require a lot more patience but simultaneously nurtures a bond between human and pet. Clicker training is the most popular form of positive reinforcement training.

The goal with the clicker--usually a button encased in a plastic holder--is to have the animal associate the noise with the reward and therefore with desirable behavior. Because a clicker is more immediate than reaching in a bag to deliver a treat, the sound can be made at the exact moment the desired behavior occurs, then followed up with a treat, belly rub, head scratch, praise, or whatever the chosen reward.


Eventually, the trainer or owner can use just the clicker to let the trainee know when a behavior is being performed correctly and adequately. This streamlines training so that there can be a big reward at the end of the session, instead of little snippets of rewards throughout.

Additionally, being able to note the immediate timing at which a behavior occurred leaves little room for error or confusion on the animal's part.

If you're trying to teach a pet tricks, the clicker can be used to increase quality of the tricks, too. For example, if you ask a dog to give you his paw, the clicker can be sounded the first time he quickly lifts his paw a few inches off the ground. Then, you can wait to sound it again until the paw is raised higher and then higher, until eventually the dog learns through subsequent progressive clicking that the paw needs to make it into the human's hand.

All animals capable of hearing can be trained with a clicker, from rodents to dogs, cats and horses.

Clicker training is an ideal way to train pets for house-breaking, show, good manners, or playful tricks. It is highly regarded because no one is harmed in the process, and, in fact, has the added benefit of creating a bond.

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Operant Conditioning: Should You Clicker Train Your Pet?