I was struck yesterday by an extraordinary ordinary moment while bringing in the groceries. A man I had never seen before was walking his 5-month old or so, extremely adorable Labrador Retriever down the street towards my house. As he approached, a couple things stood out. One, his dog had a very clean and tagged brightly colored flat buckle collar around its neck. Two, he was walking on a black Easy Walk anti-pull harness. Nothing too unusual here, but very pleasantly surprising.
As the man approached closer with his pup, I notice one other thing. He had a green treat pouch around his waist. I couldn’t be any prouder of this man if he had been a client of my own. “Cute puppy!” I shouted to him as he walked by the porch. As I went inside and bent down to start putting the groceries away, I heard a very distinct “click” through the open windows.
What was that? What was that? What was that? I excitedly ran to the front window to check it out for myself. (This wave of adrenaline must be what dogs feel when they hear the clicker, too!) Anyway, sure enough, this man was clicker training his puppy on a walk. I can’t express the joy that I felt to witness this.
What’s the big deal, you might ask? Well, there’s definitely something happening here… And as the song goes, “I think it’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down.” The Buffalo Soldier song “For What It’s Worth” was a dark and confrontational song about war in the 1960s, and of course, has nothing to do with clicker training. However, there is a revolution of sorts going on in the dog training world. The battles being fought include: traditional vs. positive, dominance vs. reward-based, Ceasar Millan vs. Victoria Stilwell, and the list goes on.
The signs are clear that the positive movement has overwhelmingly gained its momentum. There are whole websites like Karen Pryor’s clickertraining.com, online chat groups like ClickerSolutions and conferences like ClickerExpo dedicated to it. Working dog organizations like Guide Dogs for the Blind and Susquehanna Service Dogs are training their dogs almost exclusively with clicker training. Then there’s Steve White, owner of i2i K9, who specializes in teaching behavior modification, tracking, and scent work through the use of positive reinforcement training, and advocates for the use of these methods for training police K9 units.
Guide dogs, service dogs, and police dogs are now being trained to a high level of success with positive reinforcement training. The sound of the clicker is distinct and a clear signal that the dog has earned its reinforcer. This process lends itself to a high level of retention, meaning that cues trained via clicker tend to be remembered for a longer time as opposed to verbal markers, like “Yes” or “Good.” And clicker trained dogs can very quickly learn additional cues building on solid foundation behaviors, like targeting.
Back to that man and his puppy… This example is proof to me that the battle lines are being redrawn in the streets. And it’s not just him. As I drive around town and observe around the neighborhood, I am now seeing more dogs being exercised on flat collars, anti-pull harnesses and head halters than the alternatives. Does that mean that they are training positively, or that they are even training at all? Not necessarily, but isn’t it a good start to realize that the innovation of humane and effective types of dog equipment can push choke chains and pinch collars farther down the options list?
Although this is a positive message, I don’t want to diminish the fact that horrible training methods still exist and that dogs are still injured, abused and psychologically damaged, no thanks to their human “caretakers.” It’s my feeling that many people just don’t know about the updated methods, philosophies and scientific data behind modern dog training. It’s not that all are opposed, they just aren’t aware. What I’m starting to see, however, is that the word is out there. Alternative and effective tools do exist and are being utilized more than ever by pet-owners.
Positive Training Information: