How NOT to Use Your Clicker

It's no secret that the clicker is my favorite training tool. Occasionally, when I'm talking about clicker training with a friend, family member, or new...

Casey Lomonaco  |  Nov 22nd 2010


It’s no secret that the clicker is my favorite training tool. Occasionally, when I’m talking about clicker training with a friend, family member, or new client, they tell me, “I tried that clicker training stuff and it didn’t work!” These failures are, more often than not, a problem with the application of the clicker as a training tool and not with clicker training as a technique. Below is one of the most common mistakes I see in novice clicker trainers, using the clicker as a cue to get behaviors rather than as a tool with which we can “mark” and reinforce desirable behaviors.

THE CLICKER IS NOT A FOCUS OR RECALL CUE

Many novice clicker trainers use the clicker as an attention-getting device. The clicker means two things, “I like that, do it more often,” and “that behavior earned you reinforcement.” It is not a tool used to tell a dog to “pay attention to me!,” it is a tool with which we mark that attention, followed by reinforcement delivery. One of my clients had an adolescent Great Dane mix who took off chasing a deer one day. He called the dog, the dog did not return to him and kept chasing the deer. Since the dog ignored the recall cue, the client thought that he could use the clicker as a recall cue and started clicking the dog, who continued chasing the deer.

In a correct recall training situation, the owner calls the dog, the dog returns to handler, the handler clicks the return and reinforces the arrival. In the situation above, the owner calls the dog. The dog runs away from the owner and gets clicked for it. The click is followed by the reinforcement of deer chasing, which beats just about any treat you may have in your treat bag in terms of “ultimate doggy reinforcers.” Fantastic protocol if you’re trying to teach your dog to chase deer at the sound of the word, “come!” awful protocol if you want to teach your dog to recall away from distractions. Essentially, the handler used the clicker to teach his dog, “yes! I like the behavior of you running at top speed in the opposite direction chasing prey when I call you,” and “that behavior will earn you reinforcement.”

This type of scenario is not uncommon when novice clicker trainers work with their dogs in distracting environments. The dog is focused on another dog, person, toy, squirrel. The handler says the dog’s name, “Fluffy!” Fluffy doesn’t listen, but the owner continues clicking and throwing treats at her.

A dog’s name should be the cue to give the handler eye contact. Normal name response practice involves saying the dog’s name, clicking her when she looks, then giving her a treat. In the situation above, the handler says the dog’s name, the dog does not respond, but earns a click and treat anyway. Again, the dog is given a cue in a situation where she has not received adequate training and is clicked and treated for not responding to that cue! There are two problems here – the dog is being taught that not responding will earns just as much reinforcement as not responding, if she is too overstimulated to respond to the sound of the clicker, the clicker is devalued as a training tool – she hears the clicker over and over again, ignoring the sound and the treats which follow it.

Both of the dogs described here, our prey chasing Great Dane and Fluffy, the pooch with selective hearing, are examples of dogs which are expected to perform in environments which surpass their current level of distraction training. Both of these owners have a lot more work to do if they can expect reliability in those types of environment – the dog needs to receive lots of reinforcement for appropriate response and the handler needs to manage the training environment to allow the dog plenty of opportunities to be successful.

If you choose to use clicker training (and I heartily suggest that you do!), whenever you click, you must ask yourself, “Is this a behavior I like? Do I want to see this behavior more often?” If not, don’t click it! Remember that the clicker is a tool used to initiate the reinforcement sequence, it is not a tool used to initiate, manipulate, or cue behaviors.