Clicker Training can be a controversial topic in the dog training world. Some trainers heartily endorse it as a positive and fast way to interact with your dog, while others call it “bribery” and accuse clicker trainers of being unable to deal with behavior problems effectively.
What is Clicker Training?
All it means is that you teach your pet to recognize a unique sound (such as a distinctive click) to indicate that he has earned a treat. You use this sound to clearly communicate to your pet that he has done something right.
At Wag The Dog, we incorporate many different training styles, but we recommend it to all our clients as an excellent tool to add to their training toolbox. When we do this, we usually have to help bust certain common misunderstandings about this outstandingly useful training method.
Myth 1: Clicker Training Is A Gimmick Or Fad
Actually, clicker training is one of the only styles of dog training which is actually based on scientific research. While other training styles are based on theories which are unsupported or even contradicted by scientific research, clicker training is based upon Classical and Operant Conditioning, which are some of the most thoroughly proven psychological theories.
Also, unlike many other methods of dog training, clicker training is not exclusive to dogs. While dominance theory is unlikely to work on a cat or a goldfish, clicker training is universal, and works well on all living things, from invertebrates to human beings!
Nor does clicker training exclude other kinds of (more species-specific) training theory. Holistic animal trainers combine the science of Operant and Classical Conditioning with their knowledge of the psychology and behavior of the animal being trained in order to achieve the best results.
Myth 2: Clicker Training Is Bribery
A bribe is something which is promised beforehand in return for good behaviour. However, with clicker training, a pet must first perform the good behaviour in order to elicit the click. Nothing is promised until the behaviour is already performed. All a “clicker” (also known as a “reward mark” or “conditioned reinforcer”) does is establish a special language with your pet in order to communicate to him exactly what he has done right.
A “click” is no more bribery than a “good dog!” – it is simply stronger than any “good dog!” can be, because it has an exact meaning – “you have earned a reward!”. Nor is it bribery to reward your pet for a job well done. We all deserve payment for our hard work occasionally.
In fact, many traditional methods of training resemble bribery more closely, for example, “luring” a dog into a sit by showing him a treat and then dangling it over his head while guiding him into a sitting position.
Myth 3: You Become Dependent On The Clicker/Treats To Make Your Dog Behave
A “clicker” is just a way of communicating clearly to your pet that he has earned himself a reward. If you don’t have a clicker on you, you can still reward your pet – you will simply be less explicit about exactly what he did to earn the treat. Nor do you need to reward your dog with food. Many of our clients find that a play session or some other kind of reward is as effective or more effective than treats alone.
A clicker is most useful when starting to train a new behaviour, because it allows you to be specific about exactly what your pet has done right. Once your dog knows what “sit” or “stay” means, he will understand why you are praising him or rewarding him, and the clicker is unnecessary.
Few trainers use a clicker constantly with their dogs. In fact, this can actually reduce the clicker’s effectiveness, because it makes the clicker mundane. It is a curious fact that a pet who only hears a “click” or “reward mark” 10% of the time actually works harder than a pet who hears a “click” 100% of the time.
Finally, clicker training involves constantly raising your criteria for reward. By the time your dog has been well trained, he no longer needs to be rewarded for “easy” commands such as “sit”, “down”, and “stay”. Instead, he will only deserve reward when he manages something more difficult, such as holding a sit-stay for 20 minutes while you scatter treats all around him and bounce balls past his nose!
Continuing to treat such a dog for obeying a simple “sit” command would be like continuing to cheer a 10 year old for using the potty. It wouldn’t be helpful at all.
Myth 4: Clicker Trainers Don’t Believe In Correcting Bad Behaviour
It is true that there are some extremists who believe that correction is never warranted. It is a known scientific fact that positive reinforcement is much more powerful than punishment, so some trainers argue that by rewarding good behaviour, there is no need to punish negative behavior.
However, many trainers, like the trainers at Wag The Dog, take a more holistic approach. Some dog behaviours which we perceive as “bad”, such as barking, digging in the yard, or jumping up on people, are inherently rewarding to our dogs. While we can reward them for abstaining from those behaviours, the dogs may continue to engage in them for their own sake.
By attempting to make the self-rewarding behaviour less pleasant, while rewarding good behaviour, we give can shift the odds in our favour.
Clicker trainers also know something else – that sometimes, losing a reward can be the worst punishment. That is why many use a “no-reward mark” such as “too bad” or “wrong” which serves as the opposite of a click. This tells the pet that the current behaviour has resulted in them losing a reward.
Imagine arriving 5 minutes late to work, only to hear “Sorry, if you had arrived on time we would have given you a $100 surprise bonus. But now you’ve missed your chance.” Wouldn’t that be upsetting?
Many pets find this no-reward mark much more punishing than a physical correction, such as a jerk on the leash.
In other words, clicker trainers DO punish bad behaviour, but they lean more towards psychological discomfort, rather than physical!
Myth 5: You Need A Clicker
This is probably one of the most pervasive myths about clicker training.
It isn’t surprising, considering that it is called CLICKER training, but the name is misleading. It is merely a nickname for dog trainers’ most common reward marker. All a “clicker” really is, is a conditioned reinforcer: a sound which your dog associates with reward.
Dog trainers happen to use clickers the same way that dolphin trainers happen to use whistles. They simply found an object which made a distinctive sound and continued with it because it worked well.
Any distinctive sound, however, can be used as a reward mark. Since whistles are often used to call dogs, trainers chose to use clickers instead.
There is no reason why you cannot use a whistle, a cluck of the tongue, a snap of the fingers, or even a word as a reward mark. Those who feel that handling a physical item, such as a clicker, can be cumbersome often prefer a sound they can produce naturally themselves.
A reward mark can be anything, but works best if it matches the following criteria:
- It is unique – Since a reward mark is a conditioned reinforcer which means “you have earned a reward!”, your dog should only hear it when you intend to deliver a reward. If you try to use “good dog”, you will have less success, because many people will constantly say “good dog!” to your dog, without giving a reward. If you do choose a word, choose an unusual one which will not normally be said around your pet.
- It is distinctive – The sound you pick should be noticeably different from other sounds which your dog hears regularly. This is why many clicker trainers do NOT use a spoken word: while dogs have excellent hearing abilities, their capacity to differentiate human speech is not as well evolved as our own. Dogs often have difficult discriminating between two words, particularly if they share vowel sounds. If you do choose to use a word, be sure to speak it the same way every time – as if you were repeating a recording.
- It is short – While you could hypothetically train a dog by making the entirety of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony your reward mark, reward marks work best when they are very short – a click, a tweet, a snap, or a single syllable word. Anything longer will just eat up training time.
When considering clicker training, always remind yourself:
A reward mark is just another training tool, not a philosophy or a way of life… AND IT WORKS!