What Clicker Training Is Not

There is some… misunderstanding among some people about clicker training, and how exactly it works. Let me start with a quick list of what clicker training is NOT:

  • Bribery
  • A hippie-dippy love-and-peace method with no boundaries
  • Ineffective

Let’s tackle these one at a time, shall we?

Ah, the bribery theory… we meet again. A ridiculous amount of people seem to think most positive reinforcement methods, including clicker training, are a way of bribing the dog into doing what you want it to do, that the dog becomes dependent on the food to perform. And I can totally see why they would think that. When you take it at face value, we are giving the dog a treat in return for doing something. He’s not doing it because he wanted to of his own accord. He’s not doing it because he just loves us sooo much that he’ll do anything to please us. He’s doing it for food. A basic animal need. A bribe.

What these short-sighted folk are not quite grasping is why food is used and how to use it so that it does not become a bribe. It’s only bribery to your dog if you’re doing it all wrong. For instance, I would argue that lure-reward training is probably bribery, yeah. For the most part, the dog is focused on the food, not the handler. That’s not what we do.

To understand how clicker training works, you must first understand dog behavior and how they learn. It’s a science. A proven one, for that matter. To put it simply, we use food because it makes the dog happy. It changes their emotional state. For instance, with a dog that is fearful of other dogs, we use food to bring her emotional state into a happier one every time she sees another dog. She starts making that connection (dogs are a bit more simplistic than us in this area, obviously), and pretty soon she begins looking at other dogs excitedly, even when there are no treats present. I know plenty of positive reinforcement trained dogs who will perform cues when he/she knows there are no treats around. It’s because he has been conditioned to enjoy performing that behavior, because his emotional state was changed to make it a fun experience.

Try and think of it this way: let’s say you and some friends go to the amusement park for a day of fun and excitement. But while you’re there, it seems as though you have the worst luck. You lose your wallet, strangers are rude and unhelpful, you keep stepping in gum, and there are screaming children. You know this is supposed to be a fun place, but you had a miserable experience, and you don’t look forward to coming back as much as you used to. There was nothing wrong with the park itself, but your emotional state while you were there made it an unpleasant experience. On the other hand, if everything had gone smoothly, you found a $10 bill on the ground, and you had a blast with your friends, then of course you would be more excited to come back because you had a positive experience associated with the park.

If you are just shoving food in the dog’s face trying to get it to do what you want constantly, and he will not perform unless there is food present, then yes, that is bribery, and you have goofed up your training. We do not even touch our bait bags until the dog has performed a desired behavior. There is also the magic of variable ratio rewards. A great little article on that can be found here: http://www.clickermagic.com/clicker_primer/clicker_p18.html

But to sum it up, once the dog has the behavior down, you begin rewarding only intermittently and randomly, so the dog never knows when a reward is coming.

Also, if you find bribery so damned abhorrent, then I’m gonna have to ask you for your boss’ phone number, because he/she should be told that apparently you would be perfectly fine working for no pay. It will never cease to irritate me how some people expect our dogs to be perfect, to be better than us.  If you aren’t willing to do half the crap you ask of your dog, why should she be expected to do it for nothing? Why did you opt to get a relatively simple creature with its own mind when clearly what you wanted was a flawless robot with advanced AI? Stop it. It’s not fair to the dog.

Clicker training is also not a hippie-dippy method where we’re all about love and peace and kindness and letting the dog walk all over us. Trust me, I hate that stuff. Sure, we don’t psychologically or physically punish the dog, because that’s, y’know… not good… but we don’t let the dog get away with everything and walk all over us. We often use negative punishment (taking away something the dog wants) when the dog performs an undesirable behavior. This is akin to grounding your child. It doesn’t harm them, but it does get the message across. It is entirely possible to be a benevolent leader without the use of physical/psychological intimidation and force, I assure you. You didn’t follow and obey the kid that bullied you in high school, did you? Probably not, but if you did it’s safe to say it was a very unhealthy relationship in which you were not happy.

Luckily I don’t actually encounter many people who claim clicker training is just downright ineffective, so I will keep this part relatively short (maybe). Just take a look at this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTsw7RlmyJE

Those dogs were trained with clicker training. Notice how they look happy and clearly enjoy performing the behaviors, plus they are focusing on the handler, not the treats (in some cases she wasn’t even wearing her treat bag at all). She has some excellent videos of her methods as well, not just the results.

Some people claim that positive reinforcement only training (with no physical corrections or punishments) failed to help their dog and others. That it simply did not work on them. I would have loved to have witnessed the people using these methods to find out why they failed. Training is a skill and an art – if you don’t do it correctly, of course it is going to fail. Too many trainers blame the methods when they need to re-evaluate their skills as a trainer, and they need to learn it’s okay to admit you need work. I sure do. Clicker training is NOT for lazy people with short attention spans. It takes so much more patience and work than harsher methods. But people today are obsessed with shortcutting and quick fixes. That extra time and patience is worth my dog’s emotional well-being, not to mention the trust and confidence it builds up.

Now, why do people still deny this method? Why deny proven science? Because they either don’t/won’t/can’t understand it or they’re too stuck on the fact that their outdated methods still work (it’s usually a combination of both). Yes, your methods of yelling, alpha rolling, and leash corrections do work — quite well in some cases. I have never said anything to the contrary. But there are better ways. I can shut up a screaming child by slapping duct tape over its mouth, but you don’t see that being a highly recommended method. It is entirely possible to train your dog without having to strike fear into her, without having to intimidate and physically harm her. There are ways to train her that strengthens her trust in you, that improves the bond between you as partners. And yet still, so many people prefer to bully their dogs into compliance… It is heartbreaking to me as a future trainer, and as a human being.

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