What’s That Click?

Have you watched a training session at the museum lately?  (Click here to see an old video of Marilyn training Chummix) If you see Kent training Max, or Kimberly training the lemurs, or Sarah working with Lightning, you’ve probably heard a clicking sound while they train.  What is that thing?  It’s called a clicker, and it’s used as a conditioned reinforcer.  You can establish any arbitrary sound as a conditioned reinforcer, but clickers and whistles are the two that seem to be preferred by animal trainers.

Remember last time I posted, we talked about using food treats in a reinforcement contingency?  A reinforcer is anything that, when presented immediately following a response, makes the likelihood of that response go up in the future.  Food is a primary reinforcer, a reinforcer that an animal (or person) doesn’t have to learn is reinforcing.  Primary reinforcers satisfy a biological need.  They include food, water, access to mates.  The sound of the clicker is a conditioned reinforcer, a reinforcer that an animal (or a person) has to learn is reinforcing. If you follow a specific behavior with a reinforcer, either primary or conditioned, the chance of that behavior occurring in the future will go up.  So when you watch keepers train the animals, you’ll hear the click immediately following a behavior that the keeper wants to see again in the future.

There are a couple things that are important when you are trying to change the frequency of a behavior with reinforcers.  First, timing is critical!  The reinforcer has to be an immediate consequence of the behavior.  Immediate, like touching in time.  If a reinforcer is delayed by even a few seconds, it looses a bunch of its reinforcing power.  So keepers work hard to click at exactly the moment when the behavior they are watching is completed. Reinforcers that are delayed by a few minutes will have almost no effect on the behavior.  (That’s true with people, too!)

Another important variable is the value of the reinforcer (not monetary value, but how much does the animal value that reinforcer as a special treat?).  We don’t get to define which reinforcers are going to be high-value – the animal gets to decide that.  And part of our job as trainers is to figure out what’s on that list.  For some, it might be favorite food items.  For others, a scratch on the nose could be a high-value reinforcer.  For some, it may be access to a favorite toy or activity.  Every animal has a list of high-value reinforcers, and for training, I always try to work with the Top Five.  Those most favorite reinforcers are reserved for training only, which increases an animal’s motivation to engage in the behaviors that have been reinforced by those items in the past (that’s called a motivating operation).

If food works as a primary reinforcer, why would we bother to establish a conditioned reinforcer for training?  Well, there are a couple reasons that clickers work well with animal training.  The first is precision.  Remember, timing is critical to the power of the reinforcer.  And getting a food item to an animal can take awhile – you have to get the item out of your pouch, reach toward the animal, they have to take the item from your hand.  That takes at least a second or two!  Much too long for reinforcement!  A click happens instantly, with perfect precision.  There’s no delay between the completion of the behavior and the delivery of the reinforcer.  That makes the reinforcer much more powerful.

Another reason is distance. Clickers are wonderful because you can deliver reinforcement even when the animal is out of arm’s reach.  Imagine trying to train a bear to station on exhibit (a project on which Katy is currently working).  To station, a bear will move toward a designated log in the exhibit.  Because we can’t go in with the bears, we can’t be right next to the bear to deliver the primary reinforcer the instant the bear is next to their log.  The clicker allows Katy to reinforce the bear from a distance (and then the primary reinforcer is thrown to the bear from the top of the building).  Without the clicker, there’s no way we could deliver reinforcement at exactly the right time from that far away.

It’s pretty easy to establish a conditioned reinforcer – just reliably pair an arbitrary stimulus with a primary reinforcer.  For a clicker, we normally pair the sound with food.  The first session with most animals that are new to training is used to establish the conditioned reinforcer (to power it up) – and it’s not a very exciting session.  Click, treat….click, treat…….click, treat…click, treat.  It doesn’t take long before the click has reinforcing power all it’s own, just like the food item would.  And voila!  You can now begin using it in contingencies!  But it won’t keep it’s power for long all by itself – you need to continue to pair it with food in order for it to maintain it’s value as a reinforcer.  That’s why, in most animal training settings, trainers will follow every click with a treat- so that the clicker continues to work as a reinforcer.  If you clicked too many times without treating, the clicker would lose its power and wouldn’t work to increase the future likelihood of a response.  (That, incidentally, is why we don’t use our voice as a conditioned reinforcer.  The animals hear us talking all the time, and every time they hear our voice and it’s not followed by food, our voice loses its power as a reinforcer.  So I always suggest, if you’re establishing a conditioned reinforcer, don’t use a word like “good” or “yes”.  Much more powerful to give the reinforcing value to a sound the animal ONLY hears in the context of training.)

So get out your clickers and start powering them up!  With good timing and by pairing them with high-value primary reinforcers, conditioned reinforcers are powerful tools in our training toolbox!

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