A clicker can be used as a “conditioned reinforcer.” You may also hear dog trainers, horse trainers, or other animal trainers refer to the clicker as a marker signal, bridging stimulus, or secondary reinforcer.
When the animal does the correct behavior, the trainer clicks the clicker and then follows the click with something the animal desires, such as tossing a treat for the animal to eat, throwing a ball, or giving the animal a good belly scratch.
Most people think about the clicker in terms of its reinforcing properties. The click serves as a yes-answer signal to mark when the animal does the correct response.
What many people forget is that the clicker, when properly taught, also has cue properties. The click alerts the animal to start engaging in behaviors that are required to obtain and consume the reinforcer.
For example, imagine your animal has walked across the yard to touch a target. Click!
The click tells the animal, “Good job! You did the behavior!”
The click also cues the animal regarding what behaviors to do next.
The click may mean for the animal to come back to you to get a treat. Alternatively, the click could mean for the animal to stay at the target while you bring a treat or for the animal to go to a bucket or bowl to collect a treat.
Note: Throughout this post, I’m using the word “clicker” for simplicity. However, you don’t need to use an actual clicker. These ideas apply to other types of conditioned reinforcers, or marker signals, such as whistles, spoken words, flashing lights, or hand signals.
What happens if you don’t use a clicker?
Many times, when people say they don’t need a clicker, they are forgetting that the clicker has cue properties.
Our animals want to know what will happen next. Even if you are not purposefully using a clicker or another type of marker signal, your learner will look for signs that indicate that reinforcement is coming soon. These events can start to function as clicks.
For example, a trainer may not be using a clicker. However, the opening of the treat pouch or the movement of the trainer’s shoulder as she reaches for a treat or toy may come to function as a click. These signs tell the learner reinforcement is coming soon.
Here’s the problem. If you are not sure what signals are serving as markers, you may get in trouble later on. Behaviors may break down if your animal can’t see or hear the signals the animal was relying on for information. You may also frustrate your animal if you give these signals without realizing the meaning they hold for your animal.
Rather than letting these cues evolve accidentally, you can add clarity to your training by deliberately selecting and teaching a clicker or another type of marker signal. You’ll eliminate a lot of confusion if you and your animal are on the same page regarding what signals mean “Yes! You did it! Here comes your reinforcer.”