There is a training tool that is used collectively in the animal care field, and chances are you’ve never heard of it or at least aren't using it right!
Dog trainers use this tool, dolphin trainers use it, tiger trainers use it, elephant trainers use it. But as a trainer, there is a group of people who don't know the use of this effective training tool. That is the pet owners! In the zoological field it has been accepted that positive reinforcement is the most practical and useful method to work with animals. And is also immensely beneficial in their daily care. Animal trainers implement the use of a training tool called a bridging stimulus – also known as a "bridge". It most common in all zoological training programs.
What is a Bridging Stimulus?
Bridges are a relatively simple concept, with slightly complicated implementation. A bridging stimulus is a sound or word that is used in association with a primary reinforcement (food). Primarily, used to signal when an animal has done the correct behavior. Or in short, this sound/stimulus = food coming. This bridge becomes a conditioned reinforcer. Any stimulus can become a conditioned reinforcer by extended association with food.
For example, if a bell rings immediately prior to a dog receiving its food, it becomes conditioned for that over time. The bell didn’t "mean" anything to the dog before, but when repeated, the bell eventually means that food is coming. When using a conditioned reinforcer specifically as a bridging stimulus, the dog is only "bridged" when they have done a behavior that we are looking/asking for.
Why Should I Use a Bridge?
Using a bridging stimulus is useful for you, as a pet owner. It is because it helps the animal better understand what is expected from them. In the simplest terms possible, it lets the dog know "Yes! That’s exactly what I wanted you to do!" but in a much more precise fashion. By communicating to our animals when they have done the correct behavior, at the exact moment that behavior occurs, we allow them to learn more quickly! In fact, research shows that animals - be it primates, dogs, or dolphins, are able to learn a desired behavior more quickly and will remember it much more easily when trained using a bridge.
Not only is a bridge more effective than simply reinforcing your dog, but it can also make your dog happier! The use of the word "happy" is typically an anthropomorphic statement. But science covers this case. The use of a bridging stimulus triggers the release of dopamine in an animal’s brain. This gives the body that happy/elated feeling. Training dogs using a bridging stimulus you also see more of the typical "happy dog" signs. These signs are like tail wagging, body wiggling, barking, and jumping.
To your dog, a bridge gives the same feeling that affirmation and praise gives us. A good example is our paychecks; we receive pays at the end of the week as long as we finish each project we have. Replacing us will be the risk! However, we receive positive feedback on all the projects we do well, our job and the work we do becomes more reinforcing in itself. If I feel satisfied in my job, and receive the praise that I deserve for a job well done, I am more likely to be motivated to do the next project well. I’m also less likely to flip my boss a bird on the way out the door!
Using clear communication with your pets can help you to create a better relationship overall, help them learn more quickly, and help them remember what you teach them. Considering all the upsides, and the complete lack of downsides, there should be no reason not to use a bridge with your animals!
What Type of Bridge Should I Use?
Now that you know what a bridge is, and why you should be using one, you may wonder what you should be using as your bridge. We know a bridge is a stimulus, typically a sound, that lets your dog know when they have done the correct behavior. So what sound should you use as a pet owner? There are a few options available to you, each with their own benefits.
If you have ever watched a trainer work with a dolphin, you have probably seen a whistle in use! Whistles are a great choice of bridge, because they always make the same sound when blown. Consistency is very important in training. Whistles can provide a consistent stimulus to let your dog know when they have done the correct behavior.
Unfortunately, though they look cool, whistles are not the most practical bridge for pet owners. Because they have to be in your mouth to use them, they can obscure your ability to talk. This isn’t an issue when training dolphins, because their above-water hearing is not fantastic so hand signals are typically used, but dogs have very acute hearing and most pet owners use verbal commands. It’s a tad hard to tell your dog to "sit" or "shake" with a whistle in your mouth!
The only pet owners I recommend whistles to are those with animals that are hard of hearing. Because whistles can be many different pitches, there is a chance the dog will be able to hear it more clearly than other sounds, and the owner is using hand signals with the dog so the inability to talk is not as much of an issue.
Virtually every pet owner has seen or heard of a clicker, and the vast majority of them have absolutely no clue how to use it correctly! The clicker is just another version of a bridge. Clickers are a fantastic bridging stimulus because they are precise, and always emit the same sound when pressed. As discussed in the "whistle" section above, when you are training an animal, consistency is of the utmost importance.
Though clickers are precise, they aren’t entirely practical. While it is simple enough to work with your dog indoors using a clicker, having one of your hands out of commission while working a dog isn’t always possible. When you are walking your dog outdoors attempting to hold the dog’s leash, hold a clicker, and reinforce the dog, you lose the ability to manage the dog’s behavior effectively.
Despite these challenges, there are some arguments for the use of clickers over other bridging methods - some research has shown that animals trained using a clicker learn a behavior in 1/3 the training time, compared to other bridging methods. The same study also showed that dogs trained using the clicker learned the behavior using fewer primary reinforcers, meaning they had to feed them less food than with other methods.
Verbal – "OK"
Your choice of bridge doesn’t have to be a piece of equipment, as long as it is consistent. When choosing a verbal bridge, it is important to pick one word and stick to it. It is also important to ensure that the word is something you are comfortable saying to the dog in public (no curse words!), and the word isn’t something you say to the dog frequently in other situations.
These two rules are how we come to the word "OK" as our recommended bridge. It is easy to remember, doesn’t sound ridiculous, and isn’t something you typically say to your dog when you are not asking them for behaviors. Technically speaking, any word will do, but choose something that will remain consistent and will only be said to the dog when bridging them.
Though "OK" is a relatively consistent bridge, it is nearly impossible for it to sound the same every single time you say it. This makes it a slightly less effective bridging stimulus than a clicker, but you never will never forget it at home, drop it on the ground when trying to use it, or pull it out of your pocket too slowly and miss the reinforcement opportunity. A verbal bridge is ready to be implemented, Just at the tip of your tongue.
Because a verbal bridge is so convenient, all pet owners should have one and practice it frequently. The most effective practice would be to have a verbal bridge that you can use at any time and use a clicker when training new behaviors to cut down learning time. Animals are entirely capable of learning more than one bridging stimulus, and this provides you with multiple options when working with your dog.
How Do I Train my Dog Using a Bridge?
The most important part of this learning process is to teach you how to actually use the bridge! It doesn’t matter how much you know about the efficiency of using a clicker. If you don’t know how to train a dog with it, it's pointless! The process of conditioning and using a bridging stimulus is incredibly simple. But requires a bit of practice to get the hang of. A bridge can be set quickly while starting work on a new behavior. The dog will learn both the bridging stimulus and the desired behavior as well!
The best way to explain how to use your bridge to teach a new behavior. And for this instance, we will use the behavior "sit" to demonstrate. Rather than explain the entire process of teaching "sit", You can simply use the first step of luring with food. Then we'll use a clicker.
- Lure the dog into a sitting position.
- The second the dog’s rear-end hits the ground – "click"
- Reinforce the dog using a treat.
- Repeat steps 1-3.
We can ensure that the dog knows what we are trying to communicate if we click at the right time. And that is when your dog has done a behavior you are looking for. If the timing is not right, the dog may not connect between the reinforcement and the correct behavior. It is important to practice using your clicker. Also your verbal "OK", to get the hang of timing your bridge correctly. You and your dog will create a more cohesive bond by bonding together. Thus result to both learning to implement a new skill!