Wednesday, October 13, 2010

7. How to Use the Clicker

How Do you Teach the Horse What the Click Means?
Just start using it to train a simple behavior. (I suggest one of the basic behaviors such as food zen or targeting). He will quickly pick up that the click means the reward.

Trainers used to believe that you had to 'charge the clicker' which means taking the time to pair the click with the treat before using to train (do say 50 repetitions of click, followed immediately by offering the treat), but we now realize this is unnecessary. If you want to 'charge the clicker' you can, but you don't have to.

A half dozen guidelines to get you started:

1. One Click Always Equals one Treat or Reward.
Do not click if you cannot or do not plan to reward. To do so weakens the meaning of the click for the horse.

The click is called a "conditioned reinforcer". This means that the horse must learn that the click has meaning. You do that by pairing the click with something that has primary value to the horse: food is an easy one to condition. In the beginning, it is very important that you deliver the treat as soon as you can after the click so the pairing will occur. With practice, it is not as critical that you deliver the reward as quickly.

What Does the Click Mean to a Horse?
It means many things. The first is that is marks exactly the behavior you are looking for, giving the horse an opportunity to earn a reward. Once he has learned how it works, the horse will offer different behaviors trying to get you to click. This is often called 'being operant'. The click also means an end to the behavior your horse is doing. It also means "Wait the the reward is coming!" (also called a bridge). Some people think of it as a release cue. It is all these things and more!

Why Use a Clicker and Not Your Voice?
1. A mechanical click is distinctive and is easily heard over distractions that may be around you.
2. Most trainers have better timing with the clicker than with their verbal marker since pressing the button on a clicker is faster than forming words (for most people).
3. The sound is always identical as well so the horse can easily recognize it. That said, each type of clicker has a different sound and this can be used in different environments. A softer clicker may be more appropriate for indoor environments and a louder click for outdoor.
4. Studies have shown using the clicker can be 45% faster learning for the animal than using the voice.
Listen to Karen Pryor podcast
5. Studies point out that there may be a link between effect of the click sound on the amygdala (the animal's primitive brain) and the animal calming down and learning. The same impact is not found when using your voice.

Myth: You cannot train a horse or other animal in the same room or area as other animals being trained with the clicker as it distracts them.
Fact: Once an animal learns that he needs to focus on you to earn the click, he learns to tune out other people working with their animals. This occurs quite quickly for most animals.

Using Your Voice as a Marker
After introducing the clicker and working with it for a few sessions, you'll want to also condition your voice to be a marker. This is handy in case you lose your clicker, forget to bring it, or when your hands are otherwise busy with reins etc. It can also be used after a behavior has been learned and accuracy isn't as critical. You condition a verbal marker by simply substituting a verbal sound (such as "X", "Yes", tongue cluck or other unusual and short sound) instead of the clicker and rewarding as usual.

2. Choose a Reward That is of Suitable Value
for the level of difficulty of the behavior you are asking and distraction where you are training. Go back to your prioritized list from blog post number 3. Ideally, you will want to train before your animal is fed as a full animal will need a higher value treat, or may not respond at all if he is feeling full and sluggish after the meal.

3. Make Sure That Your 'Rate of Reinforcement' is High.This means: how many times per minute is your horse getting clicked? The more distracting the environment, the more frequently you'll need to click to keep his attention. You may want to practice your treat delivery to speed it up. Try counting out 10 treats, hold them in your hand or pouch and click and treat a behavior. Time yourself. You'll notice your horse's focus stays on you if you have a faster rate during early learning. This high rate or refinforcement is very important when learning a new behavior and when training in distracting environments.

4. Break Your 'Criteria' into Small Enough Steps
that your horse can be successful 50% of the time when you first start training the behavior (he is successful 5 out of 10 repetitions). If he can achieve 8 out of 10 or better, you can move to the next step. (Do you remember that criteria are the objectives we set back in blog number 5?)

5. Practice Your 'Timing' Before you use the Clicker on Your Horse.
When you click is very important. You want to click the instant the horse does the behavior you are looking for, not before and not after. Usually, a click occurs while the horse is still in motion, not when it stops (unless, of course, a stationary behavior is what you are working on).

If your timing is off, it slows your horse's learning as he thinks the behavior being clicked (perhaps one second after the actual behavior you intended to mark) is the one you are looking for. If you miss a click, it's better not to click at all than to click late.

Have someone bounce a ball on the floor and you click when you think it will hit the floor. Have them fake you out. Have them throw it against a wall and you click when it hits the wall and then the floor. Click it at the top of the arc when they throw it in the air. Click the eye blinks of a TV news announcer. Anticipation is an important part of timing your click.

6. Keep Training Sessions Short. Try 4 sessions of 10 clicks each. Stop for one minute between and then end the session. Try again in a few hours. Once your horse is able to focus for longer periods, you can build up the number of sessions but still keep him interested. If he loses interest, you've trained way too long! Always leave him wanting more!

7. Video tape Yourself. You will learn much about your skills, where you can improve and see a different angle than when you are actually training. In many cases, videotaping is a great problem solver as you can see where you or your horse aren't communicating.

Communicating effectively with your horse is what the click is all about !

1 comment:

  1. Many horse trainers use a tongue click, which is distinctly different from a tongue cluck. My tongue click sounds pretty similar to a mechanical clicker and then horses can easily differentiate it from a cluck (which I usually use to mean move forward).

    DISC is something we teach in our intro behavior analysis classes at UNT. I think it's an easy acronym for choosing reinforcers:

    Also, regarding functions of the clicker, if you hang around the horse community long enough, you'll hear that "the click is a cue for food delivery," which is something Alexandra Kurland emphasizes. More on that here, if you're interested: