Clicker Training Myth-Busting

 |  Jan 26th 2011  |   1 Contribution


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Myths and urban legends about clicker training abound. There is a big difference between "clicker training" and "training with a clicker." It's important to remember that these are myths about correct clicker training. Unfortunately, many of these myths are all too true when clicker training is not implemented appropriately and carefully. The clicker is a great tool when used correctly. Any tool has the potential for misuse, the clicker is no different in that respect.

MYTH #1: CLICKER TRAINED DOGS ARE FAT

Fact: Good clicker trainers are very careful about managing their dog's weight. Many compete in a variety of doggy athletic sports which require dogs to be in top physical condition including flyball, agility, lure coursing, conformation, etc.

Fact: Good trainers are careful about treat selection and mindful about reinforcement selection. "Treats" (as far as unhealthy stuff like hot dogs and liverwurst) should be a very small (5% ish) part of the diet. Good clicker trainers will use portions of the dog's daily meal for training, and will adjust feeding according to their dog's body condition.

MYTH #2: CLICKER TRAINING IS ALL ABOUT THE FOOD

Fact: Food is a useful teaching tool. You're going to feed your dog every day anyway (I hope), why not make him work for all or some of that food?

Fact: Clicker training, for many dogs, is initially "about the food." We tend to use food a lot more than play in the early stages of training because it allows us to get a large number of repetitions in a small amount of time and increase the acquisition rate for new behaviors. I could teach loose leash walking without a single food reinforcement, but it usually goes a lot faster if you speed it along by using treats. If clicker training (new behaviors) is often all about the food, clicker maintaining (known behaviors) is all about the variety. Food is only one of many things that dogs want - an experienced clicker trainer will know that eye contact, play, opportunity, attention, scratches, distance manipulatin, etc., can all be powerful rewards.

Fact: If someone is still clicking and treating every sit months after they taught the behavior, they're not doing it right.

MYTH #3: CLICKER TRAINING WORKS FOR "EASY DOGS" BUT NOT "REAL DOGS"

Fact: Clicker training works for dogs of all breeds and ages. There is an assumption that it's great for Labs and Golden Retrievers, but not for "real dogs" like German Shepherds, Dobermans, drivey terriers, etc. Not only does clicker training work for all breeds of dogs, its applications are universal in all animal training. If it works on a lion (or a Chow Chow!), it can work for a German Shepherd.

Fact: There is a belief that clicker training is great for training "tricks" but not "important behaviors" like recall. To a dog, it's all tricks - they have no concept of "important" vs. "unimportant" behaviors, but reinforcement history is a language all dogs speak.

Fact: There is a belief that clicker training is great for trick training but not for serious behavior problems like reactivity or aggression. While it is true that I don't use a clicker in all my behavior modification cases, there are many cases in which the clicker can dramatically speed progress of recovery and rehabilitation.

MYTH #4: CLICKER TRAINERS DON'T USE PUNISHMENT

Fact: I do actually use a variety of training techniques in my work, and negative punishment (removal of something the dog likes) is a useful consequence in some situations. For instance, I'm working on teaching Cuba at the classroom that barky dogs are lonely dogs and quiet dogs have lots of fun. As soon as he starts barking, I walk away. As soon as he's quiet, I return and we resume work.

Fact: Clicker trainers are imperfect primates. While some will say their dog has never heard the word "no," I admit to being human. I have shouted at my dogs in the past - I don't like it, don't intend to do it, and after I do it, always have to evaluate the situation - what could I do differently next time? How can I better set my dog and myself up for success in the future? How do I replace my own "spur of the moment" reaction with an action plan? Whenever I find myself being a reactive primate, it highlights the need for a proactive plan.

MYTH #5: CLICKER TRAINERS WOULD RATHER SEE A DOG GET HIT BY A CAR THAN PULL HIM BACK ON A LEASH

This myth is just absurd. The fact of the matter is, if your dog is running into the street, it's too late for training, all you are doing is managing for safety. Yes, I would jerk my dog out of the street to avoid having her hit by a car. I would not jerk her around by her leash if she jumped up on someone, chased after prey, or barked and lunged at other dogs. If your dog is running into the street, it is too late to train her not to run into the street in this instance - it is not too late to save her by getting her out of a dangerous situation

While I am no fan of shock collars (or any of the euphemisms by which shocking is known - "it's just a tickle"), it would be dishonest and misleading to hint that all dogs trained with shock collars have huge burns around their necks and are shocked too frequently at too high levels of stimulation. Do some people do this with shock collars? Certainly. Is this type of behavior reflective of all individuals who use shock collars to train dogs? Certainly not.

Are there fat clicker trained dogs? Yes. But blaming the endemic pet obesity problem on clicker training oversimplifies a complex issue at best and at worst, is blatantly misleading. I would estimate that 60+% of the dogs that I see who have never heard a clicker before in their life come into my practice in less-than-ideal body condition - either obviously overweight or at the very least flabby and undertoned, all before they even hear a click. My vet estimated a much higher percentage - 75% of the companion animals she sees are in unhealthy body condition - too fat, too flabby. Isn't it more realistic to think that lack of adequate exercise and improper nutrition are causing pet obesity, much like these same factors have created an obesity epidemic in humans?

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