The Theory behind Clicker Training
Operant Conditioning is the name given to the way that an animal interacts and learns from its environment. This applies to any animal including human beings. Put simply, it means that they will repeat an action that results in a positive consequence and not repeat an action that results in a negative consequence. This principle can be applied to the training of your dog in both ways. If you reward the dog, he will do it again. This is positive reinforcement. If you punish the dog, he won’t do it again. This is punishment.
Most training professionals suggest positive reinforcement or reward as the better method of training. In either case, the problem is that the dog does not understand English, and so you can not sit him down and have a long talk explaining the reason for the reward or the need for punishment. The only way either is effective or understood by the dog is if it takes place at fairly close to the exact time the behavior takes place.
If you tell your dog to sit and he does so, you can not then run into the house for a dog treat and expect him to associate the treat with the behavior. Many trainers feel even the short delay in getting the treat out of your pocket and into his mouth might be too long for true positive operant conditioning to take place.
The solution is to find a conditioned reinforcer. This is something that the animal would not normally consider as a good consequence and would not work to receive. A primary reinforcer is the food or treats that the dog would be willing to work to receive. So, the conditioned reinforcer is coupled with the positive reinforcer and in the dogs mind they become equal. This is where the clicker comes into play. A clicker is a tiny metal toy that makes a clicking noise when pressed and released. It is the toy that used to be called a cricket. At the same time that the click is sounded, the dog is given a treat. When this has been done for a length of time, the dog will associate the click with the treat. The conditioned reinforcer has become a primary reinforcer. In other words, the click has become a reward.