Understanding reinforcement is the key to understanding how learning takes place. Reinforcement occurs when a behaviour, followed by a consequent stimulus, is strengthened or becomes more likely to occur again. A stimulus is any object or event that can be detected by the senses and that can affect a person’s or an animal’s behaviour. These can be sounds, food, or drinks, smells, touches or visual signals (Burch and Bailey, 1999).
A positive reinforcer is a stimulus that, when presented following a behaviour, makes it more likely that type of behaviour will occur in the future. With negative reinforcement the probability if a behaviour occurring in the future is increased when the behaviour is followed by the removal or avoidance of a negative stimulus (Burch and Bailey, 1999).
In operant conditioning reinforcement can be categorised as either primary or secondary, or as either positive or negative. Primary reinforces are related to biology and include food, drink and sexual contact. Secondary reinforcers are related to social conditions and have a cultural context and include smiles, praise, attention and toys. Secondary reinforcers become reinforcing by being paired with primary reinforcers. A conditioned reinforcer is a previously neutral stimulus that begins to function as a reinforcer after being paired a number of times with an established reinforcer; a conditioned reinforcer is the clicker (Burch and Bailey, 1999).
Clicker training is based on Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. In the 1980s Gary Wilkes, a behaviourist, collaborated with Karen Pryor, a dolphin trainer, to popularize this method for dog training. The clicker is not the reward in itself, but it can be used to guide the animal in the right direction. It is also a more precise way to signal which particular behaviour needs to be reinforced. The trainer gives the primary reinforcer only when the animal performs the desired behaviour (Kaplan, et al., 2002)
Clicker training was used as it is an excellent method for shaping new behaviours and is a totally humane training method (Burch and Bailey, 1999). It can help pet and owner engage in more activities together and improve behaviour such as when clipping nails.
Burch and Bailey (1999) How Dogs Learn, New York, Wiley Publishing, Inc.
Kaplan, F. Oudeyer, P. Kubinyi, E. Miklósi, A. (2002) Robotic clicker training, Robotics and Autonomous Systems, 38 pp. 197–206.