By Deborah Jones, Ph.D., 2002

A recent discussion on the Clean Run e-mail list concerned problems that people were having with the application of clicker training. It developed into a thread on some of the more common areas of confusion and misunderstanding regarding this type of training. While clicker training is not a ‘new’ idea (B.F. Skinner wrote an article on ‘How to Train Animals’ in Scientific American in 1951) it does seem radical and unusual to those more familiar with traditional dog training methods. In making the change to clicker training, people are starting to become frustrated and confused, especially when different trainers have their own unique versions of these methods. In thinking about my own evolution as a clicker trainer, I would like to offer a bit of background about my journey to this point. It wasn’t quick or easy, but it has been fun! I would also like to address some of the myths, misconceptions, and unusual clicker training methods that have developed.

When I was an undergraduate years ago I first learned about the principles of classical and operant conditioning. I spent a few years studying these principles in an academic setting, and had a fairly good understanding of them before I ever tried to apply them to real live animals. Then, the first animals I worked with were lab rats. The behaviors we trained were fairly simple, more to test out the principles than with the goal of teaching a specific target behavior. I was excited by my success with rats and went home to teach Foxy, my old All American girl, how to target the door where we kept the treats. Foxy surprised me by learning not only where to go for treats, but how to open the door herself!

Later, I had the opportunity to work with a number of different types of animals including a retired racehorse and a chicken. I observed trainers using basic learning principles on elephants and tigers with great success. My first two clicker-trained dogs taught me an enormous amount, and I made a fair number of mistakes with both of them. But even so, I had enough success to be encouraged to continue. Finally, when my first Papillon puppy came along, I had it pretty well figured out and wasted little time with ineffective and inefficient clicker training. But I made a whole lot of mistakes getting to that point!

I started writing books and giving seminars because I know how few resources are out there for people who are interested in learning about clicker training. Through my own learning stages I saw many people who claimed to be ‘experts’ in the area of animal learning and training. Some were; many were not. My goal was to help people understand the underlying scientific principles so that the techniques and methods would make sense. You can think of the theories, concepts and principles as the bigger picture. They are the laws of learning. When you develop specific ways to practice hands-on training, you’re using techniques or methods that come from the theories, concepts and principles (if you’re doing it right). For example, a basic learning principle is that behavior that is reinforced will increase. As a technique, I might apply that by reinforcing a jumping dog when he has all four feet on the floor. Because I know (from the theory) that the reinforced behavior will increase, I know that I can fix the jumping problem without ever addressing it directly. Instead, I simply reinforce what I want and get more of it. In a very short time the non-reinforced behavior, jumping, decreases drastically and is replaced by the reinforced behavior, four on the floor.

My goal is to help people truly grasp the concepts, not just follow directions. If you follow directions they might work fine, but if something goes wrong then you have no idea how to fix it. If you understand the underlying principles, you can problem-solve. For example, I can drive my car just fine, but if it breaks down I have no clear understanding of how to diagnose and fix the problem, even a relatively simple problem. That’s why I pay for AAA. The same is true for training techniques. If you understand why and how a certain technique works, then you can make adjustments to be more successful. Also, if you understand the principles, then you will be able to see the weaknesses and errors in Trainer X’s version of clicker training. People add their own little twists to the techniques, and pretty soon they have some totally unique method that isn’t true to the underlying theories.

Someone once said “clicker training is simple, but it’s not easy.” (That statement has been attributed to Bob Bailey). This seems to me a very truthful statement. I find it amazingly simple (after 15 years or so of practice!) However, even if you understand the basics, there is still the issue of putting it into practice effectively. If you want a quick solution to a specific problem, but know very little about clicker training, it will be difficult for you to develop an effective way to deal with the issue. You may ask your friends and other trainers for advice, which they will probably give quite freely. However, if you don’t understand the basic concepts, you won’t know which advice will work, which won’t, and why. So, the first step is to educate yourself. You don’t need a Ph.D. in behavioral psychology. However, a good grounding in some simple concepts can go a long way towards helping you make sense of clicker training techniques. The two books that I recommend most highly for this background information are ‘Don’t Shoot the Dog’ by Karen Pryor and ‘The Culture Clash’ by Jean Donaldson. Both of these books go into discussions of the theories and principles, not just the actual methods.

Hopefully, my story will help you to see that learning about clicker training is a process for both the trainer and the dog. In many cases, the trainer is the harder one to teach! Also, it is very difficult for trainers to move into unknown territory, especially if they have been successful with more traditional methods. Trying something completely new is guaranteed to be scary. It is also likely to result in making mistakes at first. However, the rewards (to the trainer) of learning to use clicker training effectively are huge. It is definitely worth the effort!

Below are some common clicker training misconceptions:

“I can use my voice more effectively than a clicker”.

In my experience I have never found this statement to be true. People have many arguments about why they feel voice is more effective, but the opposite is usually the case. The clicker is better, particularly in the early stages of training, or when problem solving, as it is clearer and more precise. With just a bit of practice, people can click faster than they can talk. By the time you see the behavior, form the word, and say it, the moment has passed. Once you have learned to observe and click, the process of observing the behavior and moving your thumb will always be quicker. This is not to say that a verbal conditioned reinforcer isn’t useful, but that it isn’t better. I use my verbal when I don’t have a clicker handy, or when I’m maintaining an already learned behavior. However, I will always choose the clicker if it’s possible.

“I don’t have enough patience to wait for clicker training to work”.

I have never quite been sure what people mean with this statement. I think that this idea is based on another fallacy, that we only get behaviors by waiting for the dog to spontaneously perform them, which is not true. In general, people seem to be referring to the process of shaping here, which does involve waiting for approximations of the target behavior. However, far from being slower, clicker training will more quickly lead to a finished, reliable behavior. Because the dog is actively involved in the learning process, he is likely to move to a completed behavior at an accelerated pace.

“If I show the dog what I want he will learn faster”.

By showing, most people mean that they will be using some combination of luring and modeling (physical manipulation). What this accomplishes is to give you the illusion of the behavior. You are getting the dog to move in the desired way, but the dog actually has no ability to perform the behavior on his own without quite a bit of repetition. Usually, the dog is waiting for you to show him what to do, and has become very good at being passive, rather than active, during training sessions. A passive dog is much less likely to try new things or make the effort to figure things out on his own, which actually slows the training process.

“Clicker trainers never tell the dog to stop doing something”.

This may be true for some trainers, but not for good ones. Allowing the dog to behave in a wild and free manner all the time is not the point of clicker training at all. Clicker training is about developing control over the dog, but in a gentle, hands-off way. It should not be about allowing dogs to practice unacceptable behaviors over and over again, waiting until they stop, then clicking. That’s just bad training. Good trainers understand that it is important to manage the dog’s environment and to prevent unwanted behaviors while at the same time reinforcing desirable ones.

This is especially true if the undesired behavior is self-reinforcing, such as chewing, digging, or barking. These behaviors are enjoyable in and of themselves, and will continue to increase even when ignored. In these cases, the environment must be changed so that the unwanted behaviors are prevented.

“Clicker trained dogs are not as reliable as traditionally trained dogs”.

There is absolutely no scientific evidence to support this idea. Reliability comes from a strong reinforcement history for a particular behavior. By heavily reinforcing desired behaviors, then moving to a partial schedule of reinforcement, most behaviors can be maintained with minimal effort. One problem is that many trainers don’t understand how to move to partial reinforcement and how to use it to its best advantage. Another issue is that trainers who use luring never fade the lure effectively, and the presence of the lure is required for the dog to perform. Both of these issues are trainer errors, not fatal flaws of the methodology.

“Clicker training only works for tricks, not for serious things like obedience”.

Behavior is behavior. A sit, a spin, a 2 on 2 off contact performance, a stay, waving bye-bye, giving a kiss, heeling, whatever, they’re all of the same level of importance to the dog. The trainer is the only one who knows that one behavior is a trick, the other serious business (only to the trainer). To the dog, it’s all tricks! If more people approached their training sessions with this thought in mind “it’s all tricks!” then attitude and enthusiasm problems in performance dogs would be a thing of the past.

Below are some unusual and usually ineffective applications of clicker training:

The remote click: This involves pointing the clicker at the dog, as if it were a television remote, then clicking. First, there is no earthly reason to point the clicker at the dog. It does not have an infrared ray that operates the dog’s brain (don’t we wish!) This may startle dogs who are fearful or noise sensitive. In many cases, keeping the clicker in your pocket or behind your back when you click will work just fine.

The treatless click: This involves clicking to mark a desired behavior, but not offering a treat or any other primary reinforcer after the click. If your goal is to make the sound of the click confusing, and eventually meaningless, this is what you would do. The click gains its ‘power’ by being a predictable signal that a primary reinforcer is coming. If you start varying that relationship, the click loses its predictability, and its meaning to the dog. People who click but don’t treat sometimes think they are using partial or variable reinforcement, but this is not the case. When we move to a partial schedule, we require more than one correct behavior before we reinforce, we still keep the click/treat connection constant.

The jackpot click: When the dog does something extremely well, or makes a breakthrough, the trainer, in his or her enthusiasm, gives lots of clicks, but just one treat. The idea seems to be that if one click is good, two are better, and ten are fantastic! One of the most important aspects of the click is that it marks a specific moment of behavior for the dog. Multiple clicks can be imprecise and confusing. It is much better to use one, well-timed click, then give multiple treats in order to provide a jackpot.

The attention click (also known as the recall click): Because clicker trained dogs have learned that the sound of the click is important, people have begun using the clicker to get the dog’s attention, or to get the dog to come to them. I had a client once who had a conformation Rough Collie. Upkeep on the dog’s coat took an enormous amount of time. The client also had a pond in the fenced-in part of her yard, and wanted to keep the dog out of the pond to avoid extra bathing and grooming. At her second lesson the client told me that the clicker was working well for recalls, but that the dog seemed obsessed with getting into the pond whenever possible. When I asked for further details it turns out that the client would see the dog heading to the pond and then click, rather than call the dog. The dog would instantly turn, head back to the house, and get a treat. What the client didn’t realize was that she was clicking the dog for moving toward the pond by clicking then, so the dog was definitely going to repeat the behavior whenever given the opportunity. The client was trying to use the click to cause the recall to occur, but she was still reinforcing what the dog was doing at the time of the click (heading for the pond). The same would be true in using the click to gain attention. It will lead the dog to look at you, but will also increase the behavior that was occurring when you clicked.

The keep going click: This is a variation of the treatless click. The handler clicks over and over for desired behavior, often in a behavior chain, but only treats at the end of the behavior. For example, a handler clicks for every correct weave, but expects the dog to continue and finish the set before giving a treat. I find it much clearer for the dog to use the click not only as a behavioral marker, but also as a release. I teach my dogs that the click means “that’s right”, “a primary reinforcer is on the way”, and “you’re finished”. If you click once, then allow the dog to continue and the dog makes a mistake, do you treat for the click, or not treat because of the error? I think that this could lead to major confusion for the dog, so I choose to release after the click. If I want the dog to continue, yet also want to let him know that I am pleased with what he’s doing, I use a calm and quiet verbal keep going signal (KGS). The KGS needs to be clearly different from your verbal secondary reinforcer (which should be used exactly as you would a click). People use verbal KGSs such as “gooood” or “niiice” (drawing out and softening the vowels) and they seem to work well.

The good boy! click: This is a click at the end of a training session or series of behaviors that doesn’t mark any specific action. It is used simply as another form of praise, because the trainer is pleased with the dog’s progress/behavior in general. Clicks that aren’t tied to specific actions tend to decrease the value of the clicker as a conditioned reinforcer.

In Conclusion

These are just some of the more common misconceptions and misuses of clicker training. I’m sure that ‘creative’ trainers are developing more as we go along! My suggestion would be to go beyond a basic knowledge of the methods and techniques, to an understanding of the underlying principles and theories. That way, you can judge for yourself whether or not a specific application makes sense and will work. Clicker training techniques can be tremendously powerful and effective, when used properly. As with any method however, improper use will lead to failure. Good trainers strive to understand not only the techniques (how to do it) but the theories (why it works) as well. As they say, knowledge is power.


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