Are You A Clicker Trainer or a User of Clicker Training?

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 4 of 12

Are You a Clicker Trainer?
I will say straight out – I am a clicker trainer.  But in 1993 when I first went out to the barn with treats and a clicker in my pocket, I was simply someone who was curious about clicker training.  I began, as we all do, by simply using clicker training.  Over time I became a clicker trainer.  What were the dots that had to connect up to turn me into a clicker trainer, and what does that mean?

There are a great many people who come across clicker training, take a quick look and never give it a try.  There are lots of reasons for this.  They may have been taught that you should never use treats in training; that the horses should work for you out of respect and because you have shown them that you are a good leader; that predators may work for rewards, but horses are grazing animals and it isn’t natural to hand feed them.

You may find yourself sputtering, wanting to say but, but, but this is all nonsense.  Save your breath.  If someone is deeply entrenched in these belief systems, no amount of evidence to the contrary is going to change their mind.  You’ll only get yourself worked up into a not very clicker-compatible argument.

If someone takes a look and walks the other way, don’t worry about it.  Clicker training doesn’t have to be everyone’s “cup of tea”.  Some people have to bump into clicker training a few times before it will attract their notice enough to give it a try.  Maybe the first horse they saw being clicker trained was still in the early stages and everything looked like a muddle.  But now they’ve seen a bit more, and they’re ready to give it a try.

What matters more than trying to argue someone into giving it a try is keeping the door open for those who get curious.

So what does finally begin to tip the balance?  What brings people to clicker training?

Why Clicker Train? The Science Foundation
For some the first attraction is that clicker training is science based.  It’s development can be traced back to B.F. Skinner’s work.  Now for some this is an instant turn off.  They’ve taken psych courses in school.  They equate Skinner with a cold and unfeeling approach to behavior.  I don’t want to get drawn into that argument.  What animal trainers took from his work can be simplified down into the ABCs of training.

That translates into this:

Antecedents are events and conditions that immediately precede Behavior.  The Behavior occurs, and it is followed by Consequences.  And it is the consequences which determine whether that behavior is more or less likely to occur again.

We tend to look at antecedents for causes.  We say “sit” and our dog sits.  It seems on the surface that it was the cue that caused the behavior.  But why did the dog respond to the cue?  Why did he sit?  Was it because he has learned that when he hears that word, if he plunks his rear end to the ground, good things happen?  You give him goodies and lots of desired attention.  That makes “sit” a true cue.

Or was it because he’s learned that if he doesn’t sit when he’s told to, he’s corrected?  You scold him as you jerk on his lead or push his rear end to the ground.  He sits the next time to avoid the negative consequences.  That makes “sit” a command.  Remember the difference?  Commands have a do it or else threat backing them up. Cues indicate opportunities for reinforcement. (Number 1: Cues Are Not Commands: Published Feb. 10, 2016:

Reinforcers and punishers are the consequences that determine if a behavior is more or less likely to occur again.

The cues we use can be thought of as releasers.  Say “trot” to your horse and that tells him that changing gait into a trot is the fast track to reinforcement.

The cue triggers behavior.  What happens as a consequence of the behavior makes the animal more or less likely to repeat it in the future.

People often define clicker training as operant conditioning thinking they are differentiating clicker training from other forms of training.  Operant conditioning includes the study/use of punishment, as well as reinforcement.  Clicker trainers work hard to avoid the active use of punishment, but so do many good trainers.  What sets clicker training apart is the use of a marker signal paired with positive reinforcement.

Three Blind Men and the Elephant
When people talk about Skinner’s work, I am always reminded of the fable of the three blind men and the elephant.

Three blind men came upon an elephant.  The first felt the elephant’s tail.  “The elephant is like a rope,” he declared. The second blind man encountered the elephant’s leg.  “You are totally wrong.  The elephant is like a tree.”  The third blind man got a hold of the elephant’s trunk.  “What nonsense you are both talking.  The elephant is clearly like a snake!  Any fool can tell that.”

In the original fable the three blind men get into a fight because none of them could imagine that the others could be right, that depending upon their perspective they could each come to different conclusions.

What people take away from Skinner is very much like this.  Talk to some and you will hear that Skinner’s contributions to science are on a par with Darwin’s.  Others will say he held back progress in their field for decades.  For animal trainers Skinner’s work gave us the breakthrough we needed to communicate more clearly with our animals.  It gave us marker signals and with them the concept of shaping behavior.


The use of marker signals grew out of an unintended consequence.  When a rat pressed a lever, the automatic feeders made a clicking sound as food was released.  The click was originally just part of the apparatus, so you could say that all the innovations clicker training has brought us are the result of a happy accident.

Modern Animal Training
It is the norm to see something new, and at first to try to turn it back into something you are already familiar with.  So it is very understandable that people would come to very different conclusions about what Skinner was saying.  All of us who encounter his work bring our own perspective and biases to it.  What you take from it depends in part upon what you bring to it.

What animal trainers took from it was the power of the marker signal, and an understanding that it is consequences that drive behavior.

What has evolved is a modern science-based approach to training.  We aren’t just relying on anecdotal stories for choosing a particular training solution.  We can test our choices.  We can refer back to the studies being done by behavior analysts.  We can say, with data to back us up,  that punishment produces negative side effects

It’s the old joke – what’s the one thing three trainers can agree on?  That the fourth trainer is all wrong.  Everyone thinks their methods are the best.  With clicker training we can examine the statements we make about training.  We can design studies and produce data to help us understand why our animals respond in the way that they do.

We can look at different schedules of reinforcement, at reinforcement variability, at the effect of punishment on response, etc.  We aren’t following a particular system of training because someone tells us this is natural, or traditional, or the way it is always done.  As clicker trainers our “best practice” choices have evolved out of what research into behavior suggests really does work best.

Science is what brought me to clicker training, but for many people that is not the principle draw.  Yes, it is reassuring that others have thought about schedules of reinforcement, etc. to develop current best practice, but what appeals to them is what grows out of this work – namely a great relationship.

Coming Next: Relationship

(And if you are wondering what happened to Poco, our ear-shy horse.  Don’t worry.  I am winding my way back to him.  When we get there, you will understand why I took this detour.)

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:          

JOY Full Horses Pt 1. Ch 7: Training Playfully Mixed with a Little Science

When I think about playing with my horses, I don’t mean trick training.  I’m not asking them to bow or to lie down.  I’m not dressing them in clown costumes and having them retrieve my hat – or maybe I am (at least the hat retrieving part).  The behaviors I’m asking for are not as important as how I train them.  Ideally whenever I am with my horses, I want to be in a PLAY FULL state.

That’s easier said than done.  If you’re used to training in a very formal, structured way, being PLAY FULL may feel very foreign.  The good news is clicker training provides us with a clear road map for discovering PLAY.  It begins appropriately enough with the ABC’s.  In this case ABC stands for:

ABC of training
Behavior is obvious.  That’s what you want your horse to do.

Often people think it is the Antecedent that makes a behavior happen.  That’s how it looks.  You call your dog, and your dog comes.  A came before B so it appears to be the cause of the behavior.  But what really determines whether or not the dog comes is all the learning history associated with that behavior. When he responded in the past to the cue, what happened?

The reason that behavior is likely to occur again – or not – is because of the consequences. Good consequences make the behavior more likely to happen again.  If you put a heating pad on your back after you’ve strained it lifting too many hay bales into your loft and your back begins to feel better, you’re likely to use the heating pad the next time you over do the barn chores. Good consequences make the behavior more likely to occur again.  They are a predictor of future behavior.

Unpleasant consequences mean the behavior will be less likely.  Instead of loading all the hay into the loft yourself, you may decide you’ve learned your lesson.  Next time you’ll hire some strong teenagers and spare the strain to your back.

Antecedents obviously occur before the behavior.  When you give your horse a cue, you’re telling your horse which behavior is most likely to earn reinforcement.

So the ABC’s can be written as:
ABC of training with arrows
If you’re familiar with clicker training, you’ve no doubt seen this phrase written out many times before.

In clicker training we focus a lot of attention on the consequences.  It’s click and reinforce.  One of the many questions good trainers ask is: how can we expand the ways in which we reinforce our learners?

Reinforcement Variety
Trainers of other species inform us that we want to use reinforcement variety to maximize performance.  For a dog it’s easy to come up with a long list of different reinforcers.  Think of all the goodies dogs will happily (and safely) wolf down.  And then there are the chase, kill and dismember games that make this lifelong vegetarian appreciate her horses all the more.

While it may make me cringe as you play tug with a squeaky toy that mimics the screams of a dying rabbit, the underlying concept is a good one.  We want reinforcement variety.  For our horses food is a primary reinforcer in more ways than one.  It is primary in the technical sense in that it is needed for survival.

And it is primary in that it is of first order usefulness.  Food is both something that horses want, and it is easy to use in a training session.  In fact it is such a powerful motivator that many people have shied away from using it because they have not known how to manage their horse’s heightened emotional response to food.

Clicker training changes that by introducing an organized process for teaching horses emotional self-regulation around food.  The process transforms food treats from a distraction into a useful training tool.

Food is not our only reinforcer, but it is the most convenient to use, especially in a training environment.  My horses may love to roll in a sand pit – but not with my good saddle on their backs, thank you very much.

Peregrine Robin sleeping in arenaI’m writing this section about the ABCs of training sitting on the inner deck of my barn.  From my vantage point I can see Peregrine and Robin lying down in the arena enjoying a morning nap.
They’ve had a busy morning “helping” me with the chores, and now it is time to rest.  Again, this is clearly something they enjoy.  It is part of their daily ritual.  Today is especially pleasant.  It’s late May.  The temperature could not be more perfect, and as yet the flies are not out.  The horses can indulge in a long nap.  Peregrine is stretched out on his side, clearly dreaming.  His hind legs are cantering and every now and then he gives a deep throated nicker.

Robin sleeping cin in sawdustRobin is resting more upright, his nose buried in the shavings as he falls into a deep sleep.

I don’t know why watching horses sleep is so very reinforcing.   I treasure these quiet times we have together.  While I watch over them, I can work on the computer.  It is family time we all enjoy, but this is not something that I can use in a practical way during a training session.  That’s true of most of my horse’s favorite activities.  So if I want to vary their reinforcers, I need to shift my focus from the consequences and look more at antecedents.  I need to learn about cues and how they glue behaviors together.

Understanding cues unlocks a lot of “doors to the kingdom”.  In particular this key component opens the door to PLAY.  That’s what we’ll be exploring in the next section.

Peregrine Robin family time

Family Time

Coming next: Part 1: Chapter 8: Cues and Their Connection to Play

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “Joyful Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via  (

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites: