I have recently seen and heard discussions on message boards and dog training forums about the use of clickers versus verbal markers such as using ‘yes’. I actually use and recommend both, not at the same time as this weakens the conditioning effect through either blocking or overshadowing, but for different applications they can both have their place.
A conditioned reinforcer is a secondary reinforcer that has acquired reinforcing properties because it has been paired repeatedly with a primary reinforcer. A clicker or the word “yes” becomes a conditioned reinforcer by being paired with food through repeated trials, click-treat, click-treat or yes-treat, yes-treat. The number of trials required will vary from dog to dog and will depend on the value of the primary reinforcer, the environment the training is being done in and the timing and presentation of the “click-treat”
Both of these tools have advantages and disadvantages.
As a training tool the clicker can be hard for new dog owners and trainers to grasp; it is just another thing in their hand they have to focus on and grasp. In a new puppy class or a beginner dog training class when an owner has their dog on a leash with a treat bag and are surrounded by lots of distractions the clicker can be that “one too many item” they have to coordinate that throws them for a loop. Throw into the mix that they are also learning prompts and hand signals that need to be clear, consistent and concise, timed correctly with verbal cues and then the click; it is not hard to image a comedy of errors with clicks and treats coming from all angles, food falling on the floor and dogs performing all kinds of behaviors and being inadvertently reinforced for them during the coordination debacle.
Not to say this is always the case I have seen in over ten years of dog training pet dog owners pick up a clicker for the first time and immediately through great hand-eye coordination and manual dexterity get it right. The clicker does offer a unique sound and when paired correctly with food it can become a very powerful training tool.
“Yes” The Verbal Marker
Now the “yes’ or verbal marker can be easier in some cases for pet dog owners and new dog trainers to grasp. Everyone knows how to say “yes”. Concentrating on using the word “yes” correctly can help prevent nervous dog owners from editorializing what they are doing, confusing their dog in the process, and does not need to be held or coordinated.
It is best to practice saying the word ‘yes’ in a neutral and unique way, so when delivered it is consistent and cannot be used by mistake when interacting with your dog throughout the day. Keep it as a training tool, condition it correctly and it can be a great option.
On that note I have observed that when the ‘yes’ is used correctly it tends to delay by a second the delivery of food to the dog ensuring that the condition process is not done simultaneously or backwards. To be most effective the click or ‘yes should be started and finished before the delivery of the treat, this is called trace conditioning and is the most effective of conditioning method. For those of you who perform with your dog or attend competitions “yes” is that one tool you can take into the ring with you unlike the clicker that remains with your treat bag and dog gear by your crate.