Clicker training is a method of teaching an animal to perform a behavior using a "clicker," a small device that makes a “click” noise when you press a button. This method is widely used in dog training as well as for training animals in zoos or in animal research. In my own laboratory research, we even use clickers to teach our subjects (capuchin and rhesus monkeys) how to use computers to play games with joysticks! Clicker training dates back to the 1940's, when renowned behavioral scientist B.F. Skinner was studying animal learning and operant conditioning. His research is a foundation of the modern use of scientific principles in shaping animal behavior.
So how does clicker training work? To provide an example, I’ll describe a real-life situation I encountered recently:
The parking deck for my apartment complex is needlessly confusing and frustrating. The deck is accessible through a gate which requires you to wave a card near a spot on a sensor, which causes the gate arm to lift. The sensor is finicky though, and it's hard to figure out where exactly you should wave your card. This causes me to just sit there for a minute waving the card around different spots until I finally get the "sweet spot." The worst part of this whole setup is that there's a lag in between getting the right spot and the gate opening, so I can never be sure where/when I got it "right.” This situation could be avoided if the gate emitted a beep to let me know that it had read the card and was about to open. The beep would tell me precisely when I'd gotten the right spot and I'd know in the future where to wave the card in the first place! This analogy illustrates why the use of a clicker for training is so effective. Instead of letting a dog try a million different approximations of a behavior it was doing kind of close to the time you rewarded him, you can give him instant feedback when he's doing the exact behavior you want and reduce his guesswork in the future.
For a dog training example, imagine that you want to teach your dog to come to you when called. You call your dog, he comes over, sits at your feet, and looks up at you expecting his reward. If your dog is still learning what “come” means, he may not be sure whether he’s being rewarded for walking over to you, or for sitting, or for looking at you, or for stopping what he was doing before you called. If your dog is being clicker trained, however, you can use the clicker to tell him exactly when he performed the behavior you were looking for. Ideally, you’d “click” right when he got to you in the above scenario, without waiting for him to sit or look up at you first. After you’ve “clicked” your dog, you’d then reward him (with food, toys, praise, or anything else that he’s motivated by).
The “click” is used to mark the exact moment an animal has performed the desired behavior.
Marking a behavior simply means that you’re giving the animal a cue to distinguish which specific behavior they’re being rewarded for. After enough repetitions of pairing the “click” with a reward, your dog will quickly understand that the noise means he’s accomplished what you’re asking of him and that his reward is on the way.
While a verbal cue (like the word “yes” or “good”) could be used to mark a behavior the same way, the clicker has some unique advantages. The “click” noise is very distinct, which makes it a better choice if you want your dog to take notice of it and learn what the purpose of your marker is quickly. Clickers are also very consistent in how they sound. The ideal marker is one that sounds exactly the same each time you use it. Verbal cues are rarely so consistent.