…to enable every pet to attain all-round development…so that it is capable of life-long, critical and exploratory activity, self-innovating and adapting to change; filled with self-confidence and a team spirit… Our priority should be to enable our pets to enjoy learning, enhance their effectiveness in communication and develop their creativity and sense of commitment. (Education Commission, 1999 pp.4)
The first step in clicker training is to teach the animal that the clicker sound means that they will get a reward (i.e. food, commission, salary, shelter, residency). To do this, the trainer does what is called “charging” or “loading” the clicker. The trainer clicks the clicker and simultaneously or immediately thereafter gives the animal a reward, usually an unaccustomed, tasty treat, one small enough to be consumed almost instantly. (Some trainers substitute play with a favorite toy. However, this practice can interfere with the goal of maintaining a high rate of reinforcement.) The trainer performs up to 20 repetitions per session.
Some animals tend to learn the association much more quickly than others. Dogs, for example, often learn the association in one session, with as few as five to 10 repetitions. Progress may be tested by waiting until the dog’s attention is elsewhere and then clicking. If the dog immediately looks toward the trainer as though expecting a reward, it is likely that the dog has made the association.
After that, the trainer can use the clicker to mark desired behaviors. At the exact instant the animal performs the desired behavior, the trainer clicks and promptly rewards. One key to clicker training is the trainer’s timing; clicking slightly too early or too late rewards and therefore may reinforce whatever behavior is occurring at that instant. Another is to create opportunities for the animal to earn rewards very frequently. A reinforcement rate of one click/treat (C/T) every two to three seconds is common among professional dog trainers. Finally it is often necessary to break down even simple tasks into smaller sub-tasks (see chaining) or to start with easy-to-meet criteria which are gradually tightened.