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Why Clicker Training on TV Would Be a Ratings Disaster

No, clicker training is not on television, because it would put everyone to sleep. Good, effective training is as dull as bricks.

 |  May 15th 2012  |   12 Contributions


When clients and friends are introduced to many of the training techniques we use at Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training, I am frequently asked, "Why isn't this kind of training on television?" First, consider what those techniques include:

  • Clicker Training -- especially capturing, targeting, and shaping
  • Behavior Adjustment Training
  • Desensitization and Counter Conditioning
  • Classical Conditioning
  • Constructional Aggression Treatment

As a training nerd, I think all of this stuff is REALLY EXCITING. But the thing is, if it's done right, it's not very much fun to watch at all. It's not exciting or dramatic -- there's no barking! biting! lunging! pulling! In fact, good training, especially for the severest of behavior problems, should be about as exciting as getting a guided tour of someone's bellybutton lint collection. The best training makes for the worst television. Real behavior modification is truly a "tortoise wins the race" endeavor.

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Obedient Rhodesian Ridgeback by Shutterstock.com.

Let's examine a recent training session I did with Cuba, my adolescent Saint Bernard. Like many adolescents, he has come in and out of "second fear" stages and can be highly distractible in new environments. I wanted to teach Cuba to relax in a new place, so we drove to a quiet field on a nice day in a place where absolutely nothing was happening. No people, no traffic, no dogs walking by, just the occasional squirrel at a distance, which wasn't really a big deal since he tends not to be very prey-driven.

I pulled a tether out of the van and hooked it up to a tree so he had about twelve feet of exploring room to sniff around and look at whatever he liked. In my treat pouch, I had some fairly low-value treats (kibble mixed with a bit of ZiwiPeak venison treats). The real reward we'd be using, at least at first, was the chance to interact with his environment. 

I hooked Cuba to the tether and sat down next to the tree. I started a timer, and waited. For eight full minutes, Cuba sniffed. And sniffed. And peed on things. And whined for a minute. Then he decided to bark a few times before sniffing some more. He peed again, scratched himself, paced for a few seconds, sniffed some more. Finally, after eight minutes, he looked back in my direction. I clicked, tossed a treat, turned my body in a different direction, and sat down again.

It took another six and a half minutes of the same shenanigans before he checked in with me and earned his next click and treat. Again, I tossed a treat, turned my body, and waited for him to seek out interaction by coming in front of me. This third run, it took only three minutes. Round four, 90 seconds. Round five, 30 seconds. Round six, 17 seconds. Round seven, 8 seconds. By the tenth click and treat, he was quickly eating his treat and immediately rushing around to face me and planting his butt on the ground!

Seriously, could you imagine this television show? BORING. Stay tuned for next week's episode, when Casey and Cuba do the exact. Same. Thing. In a slightly different environment -- all new trees and grass! While the results are impressive to watch, the process is not. A half-hour program can show you the before and after, but it can't really give you much of the process involved in getting those results.

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Lots of people like to watch a video of a nice agility run. Virtually nobody, except for perhaps agility competitors, would want to watch how much work actually went into making that run so beautiful -- years of training in short sessions, sequencing obstacles, practicing your cues in front of a mirror so they're clean, etc. That stuff certainly doesn't make for a television show that's as dramatic as lunging/biting/barking/screaming/whining/pulling/jumping/humping. 

On television, modern positive-reinforcement training for aggression and reactivity would be a snoozefest. Despite prevailing public myth, positive reinforcement trainers do work every day to rehabilitate what are now colloquially called "red zone" dogs. They stop aggression immediately -- not by punishing it, but by finding out which situations are likely to elicit the aggressive response and how much space the dog needs to feel safe from the perceived threat. Then they shrink that space.

The first step is not putting the dog into situations where he needs to feel aggressive. The next step is building his confidence (and the handler's!) while decreasing the threshold. This technique is very effective, and is generally low-stress for dog and handler, but it would be edited out of any dog-training show in a heartbeat. 

In all fairness, not all training sessions are boring. It can be fun for everyone to watch a really clicker-savvy dog getting shaped to do a new behavior in a two-minute session. But that same behavior may take a less-savvy dog or trainer weeks or months to accomplish. Many people watch four-minute training videos on YouTube and are frustrated they can't replicate the process. It's all too easy to forget that in most cases, the trainer and dogs involved have clocked hundreds of hours training together.  

I do think that reality television training shows have merit -- they get people talking about their dogs, thinking about dog behavior, and realizing that behavior can be modified. They also increase awareness that there are professionals out there who can help. What they don't generally do, however, is give owners enough guidance to address those problems on their own, and often people get discouraged. 

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I guess a good rule of thumb to go by is "Would a tape of this training session make it into When Good Pets Go Bad? " If so, it's a sign that your technique needs revision. If your dog is making progress but you think, "Who on Earth would want to watch this?" you're probably on the right track. Good training would never get you great ratings with an audience, but it'll likely get you great results with your dog.

What dog training shows do you watch? Let us know in the comments! 

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