Si quieres ver este blog en versión española, pincha aquí.

Jan 2, 2013

Click Click... Clicker

Click what…? A clicker is, nothing more and nothing less, a tool used to train all kinds of animals, improving our communication with them. It is not a magic wand that will get our parrots play basketball or sing carols. It is just a tool and as such we must learn to use it and know how it works. We could simply click with our tongue, or use a light flash, a distinct sound ... not necessarily a clicker, but it is important that the tool we use is capable of deliver always the same signal, which, coupled with its small size, low price and ease acquisition (in any pet shop you will find it) make this little gadget a very effective tool.
                                                   Ilustration by Kevin Brockbank

Indeed, contrary to what many people believe, it was developed by Keller and Marian Breland over 60 years ago and not by Karen Pryor (although the author of the extraordinary book, a must read, Don´t shoot the dog has spread and popularized its use).
We've talked in another post about the different types of reinforcements and we learned that if we match a neutral stimulus with a positive one, the neutral gets conditioned and becomes positive. The clicker, or rather, his sound, initially means absolutely nothing to the animal. If we sound it near a parrot for the first time, it will most likely be surprised by the incisive sound, stop what it is doing at the moment and stay still, very still.

However, if we click once (its never used more than once in a row) and immediately we offer the animal a reward (a primary reinforcement such as food or caress) and repeat this sequence a few times, soon our parrot will learn to associate the sound of the clicker with something good and enjoyable, so the clicker will have been conditioned and have become a secondary reinforcement. Thus, every time we click we will be clearly communicating our parrot it has done something that we like and that a reward is coming.

We say the clicker acts as a bridge between the behaviour offered and the moment we reward (usually a period of time elapses between behavior and reward, so we fill that gap with our bridge). Although we should always strive to make the gap as small as possible, sometimes this is not viable: imagine we are teaching the parrot to fly from our hand to its perch, so when he lands on it we will sound the clicker but we will probably be at be some distance, so it may take us a few seconds at least to reward him.
As well as a secondary reinforcement, the clicker is used as a marker of responses or behaviors: by making it sound we are communicating the animal that we like the answer  it just gave, so we want it to be repeated in the future. In our example, our parrot will understand (by hearing the clicker, which acts as a marker) that we liked the behavior of landing on his perch and that a reward is coming soon.

So we see this is a very powerful communication tool because it allows us to tell the bird we liked something he has done in a particular instant, and, unlike other secondary reinforcement (such as praise), it serves to underline something happened in a split second.

Let´s imagine we are teaching our parrot a basic behavior such as "target" (touching an object with its beak or another part of its body, in a later post will delve into this fundamental technique). Let´s say that he beaks the object and then I start praising "well done Rufo, goooood bird"…  probably when I finish saying those words Rufo may have touched the object, reopened its beak releasing the target moved away from the object, so what I will be reinforcing would be Rufo releasing the target and going away from it, instead of touching the object. However, the sharp sound of the clicker (click-click) allows you to tell Rufo very precisely what we liked and exactly why we rewarded him.
A simple way to understand the clicker is seeing it as a camera, in which you capture a scene the instant you press the shutter, just as the clicker captures a very specific response.

However, this precision and accuracy offered by the clicker can also become a double-edged sword: if we click at the wrong time (and here the word refers to untimely milliseconds) we will be launching the wrong message to the animal. Never forget the aphorism of one of the fathers of animal training, Bob Bailey: "you get what you click, not what you want" (the behavior that tend to be repeated is the one you mark with a click, and if you did it before or after the exact response, that is what the animal learns to repeat). It is therefore important to focus (especially at first) in the use of this tool, and testing to improve our response time. We can train throwing our keys in the air and making it sound in the exact moment they hit the ground, not before nor after, or click-click every time someone on TV says a particular word ... the important thing is to remember that we are reinforcing the behavior that is taking place at the exact moment you hear the clicker. This prior training, though it may seem ridiculous, is, in my opinion, essential. We should not forget that, as Bailey points out, “training is a mechanical skill" above anything else.

Moreover, it is important to understand that the clicker does not fit all: for example, it doesn´t serve to reinforce the animal passive response´s (imagine that we are teaching our parrot to be quiet in his cage playing alone and unclaiming our presence. If it stays a couple of minutes lingering on his perch with a toy and then we click-click, the animal won´t understand that we are rewarding him for playing on his own (our desired behaviour), but it will think that it is rewarded for biting the ball, or by dropping it, or whatever he is doing at the right moment he heared the click). Another very common mistake is to try and use the clicker to get its attention or to call it: we want Rufo to step up on our hand and we click-click several times trying to encourage him to do so…

Another important thing to remember about the clicker is that it is a very useful tool when you are teaching the animal a new behavior, but once learned its better to be removed. Therefore, as soon the animal is offering the behavior that we have taught him using the clicker, we will not use it anymore for that response and simply will praise verbally and reward him (the primary reinforcement should not be removed ever, unless we are working variable reinforcement techniques, which will be discussed in the near future).

Finally I want to emphasize some guidelines:

- The clicker is not a toy, we should use it exclusively to train our parrot. If at first he is startled with the noise we can muffle the sound putting the clicker inside a pocket.

- We reinforce exactly what the bird is doing when it hears the clicker (for better or worse), so it is important to practice (without the animal) our timing.

- We must sound the clicker only once for every response.

- Whenever we sound the clicker is imperative to reward the animal because, otherwise, the clicker will soon lose all its function (stop being a conditioned reinforcement and will be a neutral stimulus again), so although we have pressed the clicker wrongly (untimely) and we have noticed it, the animal needs to earn its prize.


No comments:

Post a Comment