Why I’m not ONLY a clicker teacher

I love clicker training- I really do! I think it’s absolutely the MOST fantastic tool out there for teaching complex behaviors to dogs, and the precision that’s possible with it is WONDERFUL. That said? I don’t think it’s the only- or even the best way- to teach people to train their dogs at the most basic levels.

Please understand- this article is NOT an attack on clicker training, and I think for many people and their dogs, it IS the right choice. However, I am a little bit sick of seeing it touted as the only choice- because it isn’t. All of these points primarily apply to the VERY basic type of obedience class geared towards a pet owner whose main need is to control their dog, with no interest in dog sports, CGC testing, or anything else- pet owners who are just looking for a basic level of control that will allow them to live with their dog. The typical student for this class has only one dog at a time, and may be on their first – or fourth- dog, but has a fairly limited range of experience with dogs other than ‘they’re nice’ and little to no training or behavioral background. They may or may not need instruction in the basics of responsible dog ownership (where there are leash laws in your city, why to spay/neuter, how to keep a dog confined properly, how to housebreak a dog), and frequently, their last experience owning an untrained dog (if any) was their childhood housepet (trained by their parents) or a previous dog which died of old age and whose puppyhood was many years- and possibly a revolution in training- ago.

#1 – Clicker training requires a fair amount of manual dexterity.
When you are a newbie dog owner with your first dog, it’s hard enough to juggle the leash and bouncing baby dog, let alone throwing in treats and a clicker, and the learning curve of getting all the parts coordinated PLUS clicking at the right time is pretty steep. In a 6 week class, owners who have little or no prior dog handling experience frequently seem no better at juggling during week 6 than they did at week one. In horses, there’s a saying that green on green makes for black and blue, and I think it applies here, too. Let’s get that puppy under control (and I *don’t* mean with training hardware like collars or leashes) and let the handler learn the handling skills they need at their own pace.

#2 – Understanding how the clicker really works isn’t simple. People come to dog training with a lot of weird preconcieved notions, and really understanding the power of the clicker requires letting go of quite a few of these. This is not a problem with people who come to class really dedicated to learning with their dog, but is a lot more of an obstacle for people who just wish their dog would stop knocking over their stepson when he visits every other weekend, or stop chewing on the legs of the furniture.

#3 While clicker training is PERFECT for teaching dogs what to do, many clicker trainers- especially at lower levels- are not good at imparting strategies to their students about how to stop bad habits once they’ve become entrenched. Setting a dog up to succeed in the first place by managing their environment while they learn manners is undoubtedly the best way for them to learn. But once a dog has learned a bad habit that’s even moderately rewarding, it can be a LOT tougher to undo it simply through teaching incompatible behaviors- which is the main strategy that lower level clicker instructors seem to give their students.

#4 While clicker training DEFINITELY teaches complicated things with relative ease, it’s not necessarily the fastest for teaching core pet behaviors of sit, come, loose leash walking, down, and stay. Sit and down are taught with lures even in many clicker classes because they can be achieved much more quickly in that manner, even accounting for the extra step of fading out the lure. Loose leash walking may involve a clicker, but more often involves strategies like “Be A Tree” and “Penalty Yards”. For most pet owners without excellent training skills (particularly with a dog who has a strong history of pulling), some sort of management strategy (usually the use of a specialized collar, harness, or halter) will be needed in the interim for the owner to be able to walk their dog.

#5 Because so much time is devoted to the manual and theory side of things in
beginner clicker classes, students have less time to drill. Yes, we all know the ‘drill style’ obedience with an instructor barking out a heeling pattern was boring- but more practice under the eye of an instructor is ALWAYS a good thing, and can help set the student up to practice correctly at home for the next week. Additionally, with students who are poor to comply with homework requests, this may be the only time to practice their dog gets! This doesn’t mean just boring heeling-in-a-circle drills. Follow the leader, musical sits and downs, recall relays- all sorts of FUN stuff that gives students the opportunity to practice a behavior more times in class, and learn that training should be FUN.

Why do I want to see this change? Because I think it would help pet owners and their dogs. I think it would lower the frustration level of people who are trying to control an unruly puppy or adolescent dog who is generally lacking in leash manners, in a highly stimulating environment, while learning a complicated methodology and manual task involving good timing and a reasonable amount of coordination. I think lowering their frustration level would help them have more success in class- which at a minimum, translates into better trained pet dogs, and could potentially mean they are more likely to proceed on to additional classes. Luring *is* less successful for learning further down the road outside of the basic skills, but for dogs who will never go further (and can learn to be operant later on if the situation changes, a transition which is more difficult for a dog trained by correction-based methods), is it better to use the system with the steeper learning curve when the easier-to-use-but-more-limited system might get them a bit further before their owners stop training?

One of the MOST successful groups in my area is a group which uses traditional collar-correction methods to train, lots of (group, not terribly exciting) drilling, and large class sizes. They have a number of things going for them, though. One is price- they’re very affordable, with significant discounts for rescue dogs- but this isn’t the whole story. To my mind, the biggest thing that makes them successful is continuity. They start new classes every month on the same night, and then allow people to buy a membership in order to continue training with them every week after the initial class term is up- they meet outdoors, and unless it’s truly pouring out, hold classes regardless of the temperature. Even as much as I dislike this group’s methodology, I can’t deny that they do a great service for dog and dog-owners in our community who can’t afford or can’t find a more positive training group.

In human-based learning environments (schools, universities- but also any place that people are receiving instruction in something), a lot of attention is given to the many different ways a skill or knowledge can be taught. It’s widely acknowledged that no one method works perfectly for all people- and clicker trainers generally acknowledge that different strategies work best with different dogs. The thing I think is getting forgotten, is that that in addition to training dogs in these classes, we’re also training people. And we need to make it possible for dogs AND people to learn with the most success possible.

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2 Responses to Why I’m not ONLY a clicker teacher

  1. kim says:

    I agree with this –

    for some elderly trainers, a clicker is simply hard for them to use. It’s one thing to have a crazy dog, but for arthritic hands, a clicker, even the ergonomic i-click that I adore, can be hard to hold onto and harder to click.

    Some people are simply bad trainers – and I think clicker training AMPLIFIES this. Some people have exceptionally poor timing – these people cannot clap along with others, cannot march along to a beat, miss the lyrics to songs and sing at the wrong time – these people simply don’t have good timing. Combine poor timing with a clicker, and you are going to have a very frustrated owner who cannot understand why both they and the dog are simply not communicated – god bless the dog that can get past being clicked at the wrong time to still understand what is expected of them!

    Clicker training takes TIME- in a beginners class with the average John q public, who will never take another obedience class again, never pick up another training instrument, and this is all they will get – the clicker likely isn’t going to give them the manners they want. Even us experienced clickers can have trouble teaching LLW in a 6 week session to a dog. For a dog with poor house manners, I am not going to suggest beating the dog, but sometimes a well placed correction ONCE will give you the same effect as 6 weeks of daily clicker training (and if you have the student that trains DAILY at home, then it’s a star pupil and this post doesn’t even apply to them!). Most people want fast results – clicker training isn’t fast results.

    One of the other factors is the amount of attention required of clicker training – you have to have focus on you. For a dog that is all over the place and over threshold, clicker training isn’t going to work – are other methods? not necessarily – but a dog tuned out and focused and not working for food doesn’t care about a clicker.

    Don’t let this seem like I don’t like the clicker – my training bag has 4 clickers in it, but it also has a prong. I start all my dogs out with a clicker, and I love that my dogs feel the freedom and happiness to offer me behaviors, and understand that they can think. I am also a lot more schooled in the nature of the clicker, and it makes it easier for me to use – but my dogs are not raised purely on the clicker. There are consequences too.

  2. Esmee says:

    Kind of silly of me to reply to a comment on your blog that is months old but here i go! I’m not a trainer, just an avid reader and dog owner / agility fanatic and it seems to me that timing punishments is much more fraught with danger and something that should truly not be left up to the people you are describing.

    If someone can’t manage to somehow mark a correct behavior how are they supposed to clearly and effectively “correct” the bad behavior. I absolutely disagree that clicker trainin is not fast results, if it isn’t then you’re doing it wrong.

    Further when you correct something how do you tell the dog that they are doing it right? By lack of correction? Which is what? 99.999 percent of their life so how do they learn what they should be doing?

    How about the dogs that get corrected all the time, just about every five seconds they get a nice pop to the neck for who knows what. Love seeing the joy on those dog’s faces as they work. And that is what happens when people who don’t understand corrections get told this is how you train a dog.

    Learning theory is science plain and simple — easiest, fastest — most humane way to train is with positive reinforcement and the only way most people should be doing it.

    PS. no prong collars here

    Well, here’s the hting here for me – it’s not necessarily about a collar correction. It may be a verbal correction, or letting the dog self-correct (as on a prong collar. FANTASTIC tool, especially for big, strong, resilient dogs like teenaged labradoors with a well-established (and heavily reinforced) history of pulling.) It MAY be a correction – but it could also be using a lure to get a behavior rather than freeshaping or capturing it, something that most clicker teachers seem to REALLY dislike. And you’ve still got to mark the correct behavior, but I find for most people initially, it’s REALLY tough to juggle all the stuff- a verbal marker works, but it’s less precise. You can make up for this by using a correction in SOME form (and if it needs to be major, you picked a bad place to train and aren’t using good enough reinforcers) to block off ‘branches’ from the behavior you’re shaping- because you ARE shaping a behavior- just not free-shaping it.

    Bob Bailey, it’s frequently pointed out, didn’t consider himself a clicker trainer. He advocated (and advocates!) use of all four quadrents in training for the most efficiency. I definitely think R+ is the most important- but it’s NOT the only one. I hate that correction has become a dirty word in training circles. I start my puppies on clicker only, but frankly, my best results have been the dogs that get a mix of technique. Kaylee is the happiest worker I own and her puppy-raiser started her with the old Ian Dunbar lure-reward stuff. Lizzie is brilliant and loves to work WHEN SHE WANTS. Things that aren’t highly reinforcing and behaviors with extended duration are ROUGH- she’s only 11 months old, of course, but she has MUCH less self-control than Kaylee did at the same age.

    Overall, I think the biggest sin of all is a dog that doesn’t get trained. Most people who take basic obedience classes WON’T be ‘working’ beyond walks with the family and basic manners in the house. They should still be happy while doing those things, but the vast, vast majority of dogs are more resilient, and are not going to turn into quivering nervous heaps because they got a collar correction- or even, god forbid, an e-collar correction, used in the right way- in the process of learning the behaviors that will allow them to get MORE of the good stuff- time with their families. Dogs that don’t get trained frequently don’t stay in their homes, and they’re even less happy in the animal shelter.

    Don’t get me wrong. I do NOT think Cesar Milan and Brad Pattison crap is okay. But positive is NOT always permissive, and corrections are NOT always ‘wrong’.

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