Should I Use a Clicker to Get My Dog's Attention?


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Many dogs are overstimulated their first night attending a class. New dogs, smells, people, treats, and toys make for an exceptionally exciting training environment; and as these dogs are not yet trained, many owners struggle to get and maintain their rambunctious pup's attention. Also important to remember is that the dog's handlers are not yet trained - getting and maintaining focus from our dogs requires that we two-leggers develop our own skill set - high rate of reinforcement, observing, marking, and reinforcing any approximations of focus and building on these foundations until we have a well-trained dog.

One of the most common mistakes new clicker trainers make is clicking to get their dog's attention. The dog is focused on their lovely, slobbery Mastiff neighbor and the owner clicks continuously, hoping that miraculously, one of the clicks will "bring their dog out of it."

Clicker training is fun and one of the best parts about it is, clicker training is very forgiving of mistakes that we all inevitably make as handlers. "Bad timing days," like "bad hair days," are an unfortunate inevitability for most of us. With clicker training, really the worst thing that can happen if we make a mistake is that our dog gets an extra treat - hardly earth-shattering negative consequences.

That said, we must always keep in mind the clicker's true function - it serves to tell the dog, "I like what you are doing, do it more often," and also functions as a promise that reinforcement is on the way. You get the behavior you click, so make sure you are clicking for behavior that you do in fact like.

It is best to click for even the briefest or most cursory indication of attention - the flick of an ear in your direction, a brief head turn, or eye contact. If your dog is too focused on distractions to pay attention to you, consider modifying the training session to set her up for success - you may choose to increase your rate of reinforcement, lower your criteria, increase the value of your reinforcement, or move farther away from or otherwise reduce exposure to distractions.

If we click to get our dog's attention, what we are actually clicking for is inattention.

A brief example:

A student had a six month old Great Dane puppy. Dogs at this stage of development are in their "Flight Instinct Period," which means they are notoriously unreliable off leash at this time - as adolescents, these dogs are exploring their limits, testing their boundaries, and are frequently impulsive.

The client allowed his dog off leash in the back yard only to find his puppy took off chasing a deer. He called the dog, to no avail. He clicked the dog, to see if he would respond to the clicker when he had ignored the recall cue. The dog continued to chase the deer.

Looking at this equation, here is what happened -

Owner cues behavior --> Dog ignores click, continues running away

Dog gets clicked for running away and is reinforced

What was the reinforcement in this scenario? Chasing a deer! For many, many dogs, the chance to chase a deer beats any food treat in your training arsenal. So the dog got clicked for running away when he heard the cue, and instead of being reinforced with a treat, got reinforced with a deer chase, all while learning that the recall cue is inconsequential and that ignoring the cue is very reinforcing!

Keep this in mind each time you click - do I want my dog to do this more often? If the answer is no, resist the urge to click your dog. Make note of the factors in the environment which may have compromised your dog's ability to respond to the cue and use this information to develop training plans for future sessions in areas where your dog needs improvement.

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