ClickerSolutions Training Articles

The Tale of the Vomiting Comet

I didn't embrace clicker training with enthusiasm, when I first began my journey into operant training. "Clicker training?" I thought, "Sheesh, yet another gimmick!"

I began to learn about clicker training for one reason only: I had no choice. I wanted to get my service dog certified, and could only do it through one school here in Tucson who was willing to accept a 9 pound dog. So it was click or boogie on down the pike.

At first, I went to the training center thinking I would just smile, be polite, listen to what they had to say, and train like mad on my own between classes my own way. "My way", a conglomeration of methods, had worked fine for 25 years, and yes, I had a few bobbles I couldn't resolve, but no dog works flawlessly, right?

One problem I had was that my dog Peek was a most confident, spitfire of a Papillon, who shut down at each sign of aversion. A leash pop only stressed him, and gentle coercion to try to get him to hold an object in his mouth only made him very adept at vomiting on me.

All my training experience told me the next step was to level him with an ear pinch, or a toe hitch to FORCE him to comply and retrieve. I couldn't do it. He is a Papillon, and this breed's crowning glory is their large, fringed, butterfly-wing shaped ears. Peek was still showing in conformation, and I could just see him being head/ear shy for the judge.

This dog was the biggest challenge I have ever faced. My 20 years with Border Collies did not prepare me for this feisty little boy, who simply could NOT be forced to do anything. He had me weeping more often than not, wondering where all my dog training skills had gone, stressed and white knuckled whenever I began a training session, ready to do battle.

So into classes we went, and I snickered through the beginning clicker instruction thinking it another gimmick. I took the clicker home, though, and thought I'd just play with it because it was fun to make that clicking sound, and it gave me something to do with my hands.

Instead, I had an epiphany. Once my dog realized a click meant a treat was coming, I couldn't get his attention from me. He was velcroed to me. He wanted more, more, more.

Then I began to pair the click with something he was doing, and got him to consistently turn his head to one side quickly, and back again. He was just offering this to me, repeatedly, because I clicked him for it a couple times and he had come to know that the click marked the moment he was supposed to remember, and that it also meant "good things are coming."

But more than that, it gave Peek a way to control ME. It gave him back the power he so desperately wanted: a CHOICE. He was able to offer behaviors and MAKE me click and treat him, and he thought this was the best game in town.

At the second class, the instructor began to introduce the back chained clicker retrieve. It's taught from the last behavior to the first, rather than the other way around. This bypasses the "prey drive", for one thing, and they don't get in chase it, shake it, kill it, and keep away mode. They learn the last behavior first: to hold something in their mouth.

I guffawed audibly, and finally told my instructor I'd eat dog kibble if she could clicker train this dog to retrieve. I couldn't wait until he vomited up all that cheese and hot dogs all over her white shorts and t-shirt. She was altogether too smug for me!

Well, she had me sit down in front of Peek and hold out the dumbbell, which she had smeared with some hot dog juice.

Then she had me click and treat him for sniffing it several times. Then she had me hold off on the click just long enough for the dog to get a bit frustrated, and offer me a new behavior to make me click. He did. First he sniffed and sniffed and kept looking for the click. When it didn't come, he got frustrated and bumped it with his teeth. CLICK and TREAT!

Then we did that a few times and upped the criteria again, holding off for more. Like the textbook said, when he couldn't get me to click by bumping it with his teeth, he got frustrated and bit it. CLICK and TREAT!

I can hear the wheels turning in his head. "Ohh, that's all I have to do to get her to click and treat me, bite on that stupid stick? Nooooo , problem. Get those hot dogs ready!"

Then I held out the click until he offered more than a light bite and release. He got frustrated, and bit down hard, for about a half second. CLICK and TREAT!

At that point, he grabbed the dumbbell out of my hand and held it for two seconds before dropping it. CLICK AND TREAT!

Man, I'm in tears, I'm screaming with joy, I"m squeezing the life out of Peek and everyone in the room is also in tears. I take a piece of kibble to my mouth, swallow it. Nothing has ever tasted so sweet. My boy held the dumbbell for two seconds. He didn't vomit. His tail wagged, his ears were at attention and he was having a great time problem solving.

Now, this all happened in the space of about 5 minutes. So I stopped right then, on a high note, and took him over some agility equipment he loves, played some ball with him, had a great time for 10 minutes.

Then we went back to sitting on the floor, he progressed at warp speed. He grabbed that dumbbell, held it while I gave him a "keep going" signal of "goooood", quiet and drawn out, with my hand palms up in a stay position, which he understood already.

When he held it for a few seconds I clicked and treated. Jackpotted! I had an adrenaline rush. I was a blithering idiot. I ate another piece of kibble right there in front of the whole class. And I enjoyed it.

The next day I began lowering the dumbbell, having him reach in all directions for it in one 5 minute session. In another 5 minute session, I had him retrieving it from the floor, as I inched it away further and further from my body.

Eventually, a day later, I threw it and he brought it back, sat in front of me and held it.I can't believe this stuff. This WORKS! Praise the click, I've been SAVED.

By day three he was retrieving other objects, like pencils, pens, hair curlers, paper bags. By day four he was retrieving metal objects and the rest is history. I now have a dog whose very favorite task in the whole world is retrieving items for me, and he does it at warp speed, loving it.

But that was only the beginning. I was not allowed to use a choke on him in class, and instead was fitted with a Gentle Leader. I was shown how to circle into the dog, catch his attention when he was in position, and click for placement. In one class period, he got the message: click next to mom's side means stay right there and you'll get a great reward. It worked!

In one day, he went from a pulling monster, who constantly required leash pops, to a dog delighted to walk by my side because he never knew quite when he might be reinforced for it.

The Gentle leader was out of use in less than a week, even in the park because he was ready all the time to make me click and treat him.

The rest of his training went like wildfire. In less than 3 months, he was tugging clothes from the dryer, making the bed, pressing elevator buttons, opening and closing doors, tugging clothing off, picking up trash and putting it in the garbage can, and doing 15 minute solid down sits and stays while I was out of sight. AMAZING!

I was sold. At that point, I jumped on the clicker lists to learn more about this amazing way of communicating with animals. I realized that I didn't need to use any force to get the dog to do exactly what I wanted. That the clicker gave me surgical precision to MARK THE MOMENT of success so exactly, that I could build on his successes instead of punishing for mistakes.

It was a totally different mind set, which permeated each part of my life, not just my dog training efforts. I began to "shape" people I met, I began to use shaping to diffuse confrontations. My husband began to use shaping with the high school gang members he teaches in his Geometry classes. Our lives changed from being emotionally reactive to stress, to shaping behaviors we were seeing without worrying about "why" someone was motivated to offer a particular behavior. We just worked with the behavior at hand.

At home, I reinforced everything I could, just to keep my dog thinking and problem solving. I no longer had to train to put something "on command", I could just enjoy the process of shaping a behavior--any behavior.

At school, Tim reinforced those students in their seats when the bell rang, and before long, the gang members who wore tardy slips like a badge of honor began rushing to sit down before the bell rang because they never knew if this might be the day their teacher handed out "Geo-Dollars". Geo Dollars was my husband's "Token Economy", like monopoly money. They could be turned in for choice of music for the class day, or pencils, erasers, grade points.

It changed completely how my husband communicated with his students. He threw out all punishers, and began to heavily reinforce acceptable behaviors. He put trouble makers in charge of groups or projects, and reinforced every thing he could. The year end tally said it all: The yearly failure rate had been steady for a decade at about 40%. For the first time, the yearly failure rate had plummeted to 11%.

The same thing has happened in my communication with animals. My "failure rate" was fairly high on certain behaviors I couldn't lure, coerce or force. Understanding the laws of learning gave me a joy in training, a permanent vacation from stress I had never before known.

Now, what really has me charged up is how liberating clicker training is for those in the disability community who want to train their own assistance dogs. People with severe mobility problems are given back their ability to train all the way through without ever having to physically move the dog around the floor. They no longer have to wait for a trainer who can strong arm their dog. People with disabilities have been incredibly empowered by operant training.

For those interested in sharing experiences or learning more about clicker training specifically for assistance work, there is a list called OC-Assist-Dogs which offers a "safe house" for those who do not want to use positive punishment or negative reinforcement in their training programs. It can be accessed by going to and typing in "OC-Assist-Dogs" in the open field.

Debi Davis & the Service Papillons, Tucson, AZ
copyright 1999 Debi Davis


| Training Articles Contents || Site Home |

List and Site Owner: Melissa Alexander, mca @