Lessons from Shedd: Whistle While You Work

At Paws Abilities, we use clickers in our training program. Whether working with a new puppy, an experienced competitive obedience dog, or a dog-aggressive and anxious pooch, we find that the clicker serves to clarify and speed up our training program. The trainers at Shedd and other zoos and aquariums worldwide agree.

A trainer at Shedd holds his whistle in his mouth, ready to mark this Beluga whale for performing the “elevator” behavior on cue. Photo by John Kroll.

Clickers and other marker signals are referred to as bridges in the animal training community. This is because the click sound “bridges” the time between when the animal performs a correct behavior and when the trainer is able to deliver the reward.

Any signal can be used as a bridge. We use clickers in dog training because they are cheap, easy to use, and distinct. Many marine mammal and pinniped trainers use whistles, as the sound carries through the water and leaves their hands free to handle training tools or deliver fish. Advanced animals can be transitioned to a verbal bridge such as “yes” or “good” for known behaviors. Verbal markers aren’t recommended for novice trainers or animals as they are less distinct and precise than a mechanical signal, but can be helpful for more advanced teams in certain situations.

Bridges do not have to be auditory. I use a “thumbs up” signal for my dogs, and we oftentimes use this same signal for deaf dogs in our program. A flash of light or the vibration of a collar could also serve the same purpose. Many of the animals at Shedd were conditioned to a tactile bridge, where the trainer would pat the sea lion or dolphin on their side in a specific way to mark the behavior they liked.

Whatever bridging stimulus you decide to use, Ken emphasized that it’s important for it to be distinct and easy to replicate. It should serve no other purpose in the animal’s environment.

So, why use a marker signal at all? What makes the clicker or whistle so powerful?

Marker signals allow trainers to be accurate and precise. By clicking or whistling at the exact moment your animal performs the correct behavior, you can help him to learn more quickly exactly what it is you like. It’s often difficult or even impossible to deliver a food reward or secondary reinforcer to the animal at the precise instant he does what you want, but by using a marker we can still communicate to him exactly what earned that reward.

Furthermore, the bridge can be transferred from trainer to trainer easily, allowing a wider variety of trainers to work with one animal. When an animal understands to listen, watch, or feel for the bridging stimulus, he concentrates more fully on the task at hand instead of focusing on the food or other reward.

Novice trainers often worry that they will need to carry a clicker with them for the rest of their dog’s life. Nonsense! The clicker allows us to teach your dog more quickly and easily. It’s simply another teaching tool. Once your dog understands the behavior, it’s easy to fade the clicker.

What bridging signals do you use to train your dog? Do you use different signals in different environments? Please share your experiences in the comments section below!

One response to “Lessons from Shedd: Whistle While You Work

  1. I use “yes,” though I will say sometimes I do feel I’m a bit to slow with it and have considered using a clicker. I have started using a clicker with the beagle, but am continuing at this point with “yes” with the labrador. We’ll see how it goes!

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