Corinna, of SeaShe, asked me about clicker training, which I use for both my dogs and my horses.
Clicker training is a form of operant conditioning, the same sort of training that is used for marine mammals. The trainers of these mammals were faced with a problem: how do you train something that can just leave? Traditional methods based on force or pressure wouldn’t work. The trainers began rewarding the animals for their actions, increasing the likelihood of the behavior.
However, it can be awkward to reward a porpoise with a fish in the middle of a jump. Therefore, the trainers conditioned the animals to expect a reward when they heard a signal like a whistle. Porpoise jumps, hears whistle, and expects a fish. The whistle is called a bridge, since it acts as a bridge between the behavior and the reward.
In clicker training the bridge is a clicker, a little noise maker that can be held in the hand. The bridge solves a problem in using food rewards with enthusiastic animals that can weigh over one thousand pounds. While training the first behaviors with a horse, I continually reinforce the concept “under no circumstances will you get a reward unless you hear the click first.” Clicker trained horses become very polite about taking treats without mugging people for food. Not only does the click train the animal to expect a treat, but it indicates exactly what behavior is being rewarded.
After the initial introduction, I rarely use a mechanical clicker, because I condition my animals to work off a tongue click as a marker. Trying to ride, use a mechanical clicker, and treat can be a logistical challenge. I’ve ridden in howling windstorms and the horse can still hear my tongue click. I’ve also ridden clicker trained horses around other clicker trained horses, and they quickly figure out who is getting clicked.
After years of Hap spooking and bolting, which could be very wearing, I started clicker training in an effort to see if I could train calmness. You can’t train a negative, “don’t spook,” but you can train a positive, “pay attention to my requests.” It worked. I can’t recall the last time he spooked badly enough to shift his rider in the saddle. Right before I began clicker training him, he was good for at least one spook per session.
Clicker training also gave me the confidence to ride Hap with a bareback pad. Since he stops when he hears the click, I know that I can always stop him if I feel myself become unbalanced. Now I call my 16.2 hand horse the “best little bareback pony in Colorado.”
My most recent application was training my Collie to sleep on a protected area in my office. She has been having spay incontinence, and while we got her medication figured out, I still wanted to be able to allow her in the house. Since Lody was already clicker trained, it took no more than an hour or so for her to figure out where I wanted her to stay.