Why I Clicker Train
Satch, my Great Pyrenees, is an old man now. I brought him home at 11 weeks of age, already a hefty 20 pounds. This dog was going to be BIG. I knew his size would intimidate people, so I, like any good dog owner, went in search of a training class that would make him a model canine citizen.
At that time, I had never heard of clicker training or even non-punishment-based training methods. To train a dog, you used a leash and a choke collar. My concern was finding a trainer that didn't "hang" dogs or use other extreme methods. I found an experienced trainer who put a nylon choke collar on my soft puppy, and two classes and a few months later, I had a dog who would sit, lie down, heel, stay, and come when called.
That was the end of Satch's formal obedience career. When I first started classes, I thought, "Hey, this looks like fun. Maybe we could practice and even earn a CD." But Satch didn't really seem "into" training, so I settled for a mannerly dog who fit comfortably into our household and the community at large. Eight years later, he will still, albeit slowly and deliberately after several commands, sit, lie down, stay, and come when called. Heel disappeared long ago, but he walks so slowly that it's hardly an issue.
In 1998, the "I want a puppy" bug bit hard. I had become increasingly interested in dog activities and wanted a pet with whom I could compete in confirmation, obedience, and maybe even agility. It was during that search that I found that changes were occurring in the training world. Training methods were becoming more positive, less punishment-based. Intrigued, I started searching the Web for more information. That's when I discovered clicker training.
What is clicker training?
Clicker training is a reward-based method which uses an event marker, the clicker, to communicate to the dog which behavior is being reinforced. Clicker training grew, in part, out of a method used by dolphin trainers.
Dolphin trainers were in an unusual training situation: How could they train an animal that couldn't be physically manipulated and that could choose to swim away? Since the trainers couldn't punish the animals, they chose to reward them for the "correct" behaviors, hoping that the dolphins would repeat the behavior to earn another reward. To help the dolphin identify which behavior was being reinforced, they blew a whistle at the moment the behavior occurred. They trained complex behaviors by breaking them into tiny steps and "shaping" them gradually.
Clicker training replaces the whistle with a tin noisemaker, but retains the basic techniques used by the dolphin trainers. "Bad" behavior is ignored, and "good" behavior is marked and rewarded. A reward can be a food treat, a toss of a favorite toy, cuddles, or whatever the dog enjoys. Most often, especially in the beginning, it is a food treat, because the dog finds it naturally rewarding, and because it's easy and fast to use. Praise is also used, but it isn't generally the only reward because many animals don't find it sufficiently motivating.
Does it work?
Clicker training does work, if done correctly. So does traditional training. Training-all training-depends on communication, consistency, and repetition.
First, the trainer has to communicate to the animal exactly what to do. Traditionally, the trainer shows the animal the desired behavior by luring it or physically modeling it-guiding it into a sit, for example-and praising. A trainer communicates that a behavior is undesirable using a collar correction, a sharp "No!" or other punishment.
The first rule of clicker training is "Get the behavior." Clicker trainers may wait for the behavior to occur naturally, lure, or shape the behavior in tiny increments. When the desired behavior occurs, the clicker trainer marks it with the clicker and rewards it. Undesired behaviors are ignored or given a signal that means, "Try again."
Second, the trainer must be consistent in the communication. Traditional trainers are taught that they must always be consistent when giving and enforcing cues and when punishing bad behavior. Trying to break a dog of begging at the table? Then he must never, ever be allowed to do so or else he'll keep trying because, like a slot machine, the behavior just might pay off this time.
The clicker is, by its nature, consistent. A click always means, "You're doing exactly what I want" and "You're going to get rewarded." Once the dog learns the desired behavior, it's not necessary to click every occurrence. Clicker training uses the slot-machine principle to its advantage: a variable schedule of payoff keeps the dog working because each performance might be rewarded.
Third, training requires repetition. No matter what method is used, dogs learn by repetition. As a species, they don't generalize well. "Sit" in your living room is very different from "sit" in a class setting. A good trainer, clicker or traditional, will add distractions, generalize the behavior to different locations and contexts, and do thousands of repetitions before considering a behavior trained.
If all three criteria-communication, consistency, and repetition-are adequately met, a training method will be successful. So, if I already knew a successful method, why did I make the switch?
A Shifting Philosophy
Clicker training appealed to me from the beginning because it looks at the dog/human relationship from a totally different perspective. Clicker training focuses on what's right rather than what's wrong. It focuses on the solution, not the problem.
Let's look at a common training issue: a dog who jumps on people to greet them. The traditional solution is to stop the behavior by punishing it. Common methods include stepping on the dog's toes or kneeing the dog in the chest. A less harsh method involves simply turning away until the dog figures out that he won't get the attention he wants by jumping.
When someone asks, "How do I stop my dog from jumping on people?", a clicker trainer asks, "What do you want the dog to do instead?" Clicker training focuses on training a preferred behavior, which can be rewarded, rather than punishing an undesirable one. "I want my dog to sit nicely to be petted." Not only does this approach give the owner a definable action to train, but it also gives the dog a definable action to perform.
There was one more thing that attracted me to clicker training: I don't like hurting my dog.
The Big Punishment Debate
"Wait!" cry the traditional trainers. "We don't hurt dogs!"
In the last traditional class I attended, the trainer went around the room with a choke collar and a prong collar and demonstrated on each person's arm that the collars don't cause pain. I'd like to see the same demonstration with the collars around the trainer's neck. I bet one good jerk on his Adam's apple would change his mind.
Still, used properly, training collars don't injure dogs. Since I'm not a dog and pain thresholds vary, I can't even tell you how much pain they cause. However, if they were pleasant-or even neutral-they wouldn't work. They are, by definition, an aversive, meant to cause a decrease in a particular behavior.
A good trainer (and yes, I believe there are many excellent traditional trainers) can, through excellent timing and expert judgement of how much force is required, apply one correction and communicate exactly what the undesired behavior was. (That excellent timing, by the way, tends to make these trainers superb clicker trainers once the focus is shifted from what's wrong to what's right.)
Unfortunately, the vast majority of people, including me, have lousy timing and no clue about necessary force. At best, multiple corrections are needed. At worst, constant, ineffective corrections are given until the dog simply tunes out and ignores the person on the end of the leash. (Ever see dogs "heeling" in a beginner class? Almost all are wandering around, completely unaware that they're supposed to be doing anything in particular, patently ignoring the constant drag on their choke collars.) The result: the person gets angry at the "stupid, stubborn, spiteful dog who refuses to do what I want."
Timing is equally, if not more, important in clicker training than in traditional training. However, if I click late, the worst I will do is slow down my dog's progress. I haven't caused any unnecessary pain.
I train for two reasons: to have a dog that is a welcome, well-behaved citizen in the human world and because it's fun doing things together. Fun. Training, even important training like basic manners, should be fun for both of us.
Nothing short of a life-threatening situation is important enough to rationalize causing my dog pain.
The Proof is in the Attitude
All of these theories and philosophies sounded good, but I wanted to try it out. I wasn't expecting to get a puppy for months, so I dragged poor Satch out of retirement. I decided to try to teach him something simple but unlike anything he'd ever done: to touch a target with his nose.
I gathered together a clicker, some treats, and a plastic bat which I was using as a "target stick." Satch eyed me suspiciously-and the treats hungrily. First, I had to teach him that the sound of the clicker meant food. Click, treat. Click, treat. After a minute, I brought out the target and held it near his nose. The first time, I think he bumped it accidentally. Click, treat. He watched me intently, practically unaware of the target. I moved it around a bit, and again-he accidentally bumped it. Click, treat. This went on for a few minutes, then he looked at me and looked at the bat. He reached over and bumped it. Click, treat. Again. Click, treat. Again and again. In subsequent training sessions, I moved the target around, over his head, on the floor, to the left and right, behind him, several steps away.
Satch learned what I had set out to teach him, and I was amazed. This was the dog that did every behavior slowly and reluctantly? This was the dog that was so reserved and calm? When I brought out the clicker, Satch became a different dog. He threw behaviors at me, trying to figure out what would make me click. He worked intently-he played. This was a game, and he loved it. If I asked him to perform one of his old, traditionally-trained behaviors, he would freeze and something would go out of him. Again, he was deliberate and withdrawn. So I'd pull out the target stick, even without the clicker, just to see some life in his eyes.
At the beginning of August 1998, I brought home a four-month-old Newfoundland puppy we named Rain. We began clicker training him the very first night. He and Satch compete for training time. It's great fun to try to teach one dog a certain behavior and have the other do it. "See, Mom, I can do that! Click me! Click me!"
Is Rain a perfectly trained dream dog? Nope-at least not the perfectly trained part. But that's my fault. It's so much fun teaching Rain new behaviors that I never seem to bother teaching any one to fluency. Somehow it doesn't matter quite so much that he be perfect. Once I learned to focus on what's right, I stopped being disturbed by the occasional mistake.
The lesson began taking hold in other parts of my life. I found that my husband rinsed his dishes more often when I thanked him for remembering instead of berating him for forgetting. When service levels dipped at work, my boss wanted to impose stricter penalties for lapses in procedure. I suggested incentives for superior attempts instead. The service has been steadily improving.
Clicker training isn't a training method to me. It's a philosophy, a way of life. Reward the good, ignore the bad. Break tasks into tiny steps and reward small successes. And in some cosmic, karmic sense of right, more and more good things seem to be happening to me. I wanted a trained dog. I found a happy life.
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