I’ll Break the First Rule of Clicker Training…

SarahAnxiety Issues, Dog TrainingLeave a Comment

…By dwelling on the negative, and pointing out what clicker training is not. Clicker trainers tend to focus not only on positive training with animals, but also on positive-oriented language in their dealings with clients, friends, family and peers. Rarely will you hear the word “no” or any of its derivatives in training or even everyday conversation. We’d much rather take a negatively-skewed comment and turn it into an opportunity to highlight the positive, and then strive for improvement.
So I’ll summarize all the negativity very quickly… In clicker training:

  • A click is not intended to serve as a punishment in of itself.
  • A click is not intended as a warning that punishment is coming.
  • A click is not intended to serve as a cue to a behavior.

Recently, I’ve been thrilled to hear about other practical applications for clicker training, until I heard about how it was actually being applied.

 For example, did you hear about the linguistics professor at Boston College who was using a clicker to correct when her Bostonian students, in trademark fashion, dropped their “R”s in their speech? In covering the print story about the professor, the reporter was filmed clicking to correct his father’s pronunciations (starting at 1:15 in video).
Whereas Dad offered some beautiful pronunciations, he was clicked repeatedly at the end of his sentence and belittled by his son for being “not even close.” The video ended with the son throwing up his hands in jovial frustration and the father lovingly telling his son and the film crew to “get the hell out of my house.” Oh yeah, and the whole experience made the father embrace his accent even more.
In short, this technique of clicking to correct might be perceived by the learner as a non-verbal form of extreme nagging. Except when this punishing type of technique is utilized in a dog or animal training scenario, the dog can’t say “get the hell away from me” – although that would be really funny. Although there was no physical punishment here, the dog still might turn its back, ignore you, walk away, or have a complete meltdown in frustration, where it refuses to do anything. Consequently, behavior has not been modified and, perhaps, undesirable behavior may have even been strengthened.
Similarly, I found myself in a conversation with an animal professional who shared a story about her client, who was proud of the effect that “clicker training” had on his mouthy dog. When the professional had asked if the client had heard of clicker training, he said, “Oh sure, I use a clicker. I click it right before I hit the button on the shock collar remote.”
Oh no… Well, IF there is a bright side to this conversation, the man is trying to teach his dog that it has a choice whether or not to be shocked (a la the “warning tone” on an underground electronic fence). Personally, I would rather a dog be warned than just issued random jolts of electricity, if ever given the option.
BUT, because quick-fix punishment – like collar corrections or electric shocks – tend to suppress behavior rather than address the underlying cause, and because there are numerous studies on its adverse effects, this form of training is certainly not ideal, nor recommended.

A couple different scenarios have also shed light on clickers being used as the cue for a behavior. For example, a person clicks the clicker, dog stops pulling on the lead. Or, a person clicks the clicker, and dog automatically “stacks” its posture for the show ring.

These aren’t nagging or necessarily punishment-based applications of the clicker. The folks in these scenarios are simply using the clicker as their cue for behavior. Whereas other people might issue the verbal cue to “Slow” or “Stack,” or issue a hand signal for behavior, the cue here is an audible sound, not unlike a whistle or a hand clap.
So what’s the harm? I don’t see any harm in this use of the clicker… EXCEPT, of course, if you are trying to clicker-train your dog with a clicker! You dog would, no doubt, be very confused if the click served both as the cue and the behavior marker. Dog says: “Does the click mean to offer a certain behavior, or that what I just did was correct, or both?… I’m so confused!”
Which leads us to the best part… What IS the click in clicker training? Simply put, the click is a signal that alerts your dog to the moment it demonstrated the correct behavior, and is a promise that a reward (usually food) is coming.
In a way, this article in itself is a lesson about clicker training, isn’t it? Instead of spending several paragraphs explaining what clicker training IS NOT, wouldn’t you rather have learned what it IS up-front instead? And wouldn’t that have been a lot quicker? Of course! Which is why clicker trainers love to teach and reward learners for the correct behavior (what to do), instead of punishing for the innumerable behaviors that might be incorrect (what not to do). It’s to the point, and so much faster!
And as for the clicker itself… It’s important to remember that the clicker was originally invented as a fun child’s noisemaker in the 1950s. Then along came those silly animal trainers and teachers, like Karen Pryor, Gary Wilkes, Theresa McKeon and Joan Orr, who took those toys and added some structured meaning to that unique “click” for animals and people alike (as in TAGTeach – Teaching with Acoustical Guidance).
And not to say that all other applications of that simple clicker toy are inappropriate or psychologically damaging. I simply encourage, when it comes to choosing a dog or animal trainer, that you understand the context of the clicker’s use, and just exactly what the “click” in clicker training should mean.
To learn more about clicker training, Click! here.
Additional Resources:

How Many Different Things Can You Catch With Honey?
Functional Cues: Palm Targeting and “Here”
To Click or Not to Click

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