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Clicker Training: What it isn't

There are three general opinions of clicker training: it's the hottest thing since sliced bread, a passing fad or an annoyance, on par with fleas at a breed show. Often, the latter two  opinions are formed after hearing too much of the former. The rhetoric of some clicker trainers sounds like a cross between an infomercial and some kind of religious experience.  Deciding which opinion fits your training style begins with knowing what clicker training is -- and what it isn't.

Top 10 Misconceptions About Clicker Training

 1) Clicker training is "all positive." -- No method of training is "all positive." By scientific definition, the removal of a desired reward is a "negative punishment." People who say  they are using "all motivational" or "all positive" methods are merely suggesting that they don't like using punishment -- so who does? It isn't that clicker trainers don't use aversive  control, it's that the sequence is different. In clicker training, aversive control is generally never used to create behaviors. Needed corrections are almost always applied at the end of  the learning cycle, after the dog has a firm knowledge of the behavior. When you use this sequence, correctly, you may be surprised at how rarely your dog needs corrections -- but  there will always come a time when you need to tell your dog that obedience is not "optional."

2) Clicker training was invented by dolphin trainers. -- No. The first people to take operant  conditioning out of the laboratory were Keller and Marian Breland, two students of B.F. Skinner, way back in the 1940's -- with dogs. It wasn't until the mid-1950's that Keller  Breland invented marine mammal training. Yes, both types of training have similar roots, but "dogs ain't dolphins." For instance, marine mammals can be reinforced at any time  during training AND performance -- like an obedience competition that allows you to use food in the ring. It is rare for dolphins and whales do more than four or five behaviors  without some actual food treat -- and common for dogs to work for long periods in the absence of food. There are enough fundamental differences in the expectations of these  two areas of training that attempting to transpose marine mammal methods directly to dogs may fail to utilize the dog's full potential -- or just simply fail.

 3) You can teach an animal to do anything with a clicker -- Nope, there are limits. Dogs have instinctive behaviors that are not fully controllable by any form of conditioning. (And  gosh, I have seen my share those dogs over the years. ) The idea that clicker training can accomplish anything, is usually the wishful thinking of someone with limited experience.  Hoping that clicker training can do everything misses the importance of the method -- there are some pretty remarkable things that only occur when using a clicker, or its equivalent -- more about that, in a future column.

 4) Clicker trainers use food, food and more food, as their means of reinforcing behavior. Nope. Food is a great tool for many situations, but has some obvious limitations. A smart  trainer uses tone of voice, high pitched praise, affection, balls, squeakers or anything else their dog enjoys working for. The tendency to rely on food exclusively ignores the fact  that no single reinforcer can keep a dog motivated at all times.

5) You can't teach classes with clickers because all those clickers will confuse the dogs. --  Having taught clicker classes for years, this one still makes me smile a little. Dogs have better hearing that we do, and they quickly learn to listen for their owner's click, while  ignoring all others. One side effect of this forced discrimination is that within a couple sessions, clicker trained dogs tend to be very focused on their trainers -- because they  have to be. If you are still concerned about clickers confusing dogs in classes, my best advice is to cop the Nike slogan, "Just do it."

 6) A clicker is a bad training tool, because you can't take it into the ring. -- It is important to realize that the clicker is a construction tool, rather than a performance tool. From that  perspective, it is in the same class as a leash correction in competition -- both tools can shape behaviors, but they aren't part of performance. Going into the ring with a clicker is  like walking out of the bathroom at a gala event with toilet paper stuck to your shoe. If you think you need the clicker in the ring, it is probably too soon for you to be in the ring.

 7) A word, ("good" "yes" "ready") works just as well as the clicker. -- No. There are still some people who seem to have an allergy to clickers, even though they know how well  they work. Having used both clickers and words, several thousand times, I can assure you that the difference between a clicker and a word is easily observable. The essence of this  method is using a precisely timed signal to mark good behavior. Words are far less efficient as "behavior markers" than a crisp, quick sound, like a metallic click. This does  not mean that clicker trainers always use a clicker in every training situation. Next month we will look at the way the clicker works, and why it is not always the best,or only tool for the job.

 8) Using a clicker to modify an instinctive behavior, like herding, or bite work, will wreck the animal's drive. Nope. All trainers use instinctive behaviors as the foundation for their  training. Herding and Schuttzhund trainers modify instinctive behaviors, all the time -- they just call it something else, like "building drive". Regardless of what you call it, as long as  you are clear on how to use a clicker to give information to the dog, the motivation (prey drive, etc.) will still work to motivate the dog to give good performance. The clicker is  actually a great tool for fine tuning a high drive dog who is barely under control.

9) Clicker trained dogs are unreliable and "throw" behaviors at you, so you never know  when they will offer the wrong behavior, just to get a treat. It is true that clicker trained dogs are more variable in the learning stages of a behavior than traditionally trained dogs --  that's one of the great strengths of the method. However, using corrections and reinforcements to maintain a learned behavior are no different with a clicker dog than with  a traditionally trained dog. i.e. If your dog starts throwing behaviors at you during a performance, just say, "NO". He will soon get the idea that creativity is for training and  precision is for performance. As for reliability, there are several clicker-trained, FEMA certified, Search and Rescue dogs -- and several hundred clicker trained, working service  dogs. Reliability is not really dependent on whether you use a clicker or food in training. As with all methods of training, much of the reliability is a matter of how well the trainer  crafts the training to match the dog's temperament.

10) Clicker trainers just sit around waiting for the dog to offer a behavior. -- Not by a long  shot. Clicker training places great emphasis on discovering efficient ways to "get the behavior to happen." Clicker training brought target sticks to obedience training, in order to  cut down on waiting for the animal to "accidentally" do a perfect "go-out." Waiting around for a behavior to happen is not my idea of efficient training.


 After more than a dozen years and 3,000 dogs worth of clicker training I have come to respect the clicker's power for shaping good behavior - and I have also learned its  limitations. My goal is to offer you tools that can help you take an objective view of this new tool and some ideas on how to utilize its power. With a little effort, you may just find out what all the fuss is about.

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