Debunking Clicker Myths: Again

Maybe other trainers have said this before, but it can be said again. Yesterday at the store, we had a customer who was asking about training, but when she saw it was clicker training gave me a look and said “Oh, no, I don’t want that.” Just from the look on her face, I felt sort of like I was trying to sell her snake skin ointment – some hocus pocus, voodoo magic in a box that was going to hypnotize her puppy. She left before I could ask her to explain her dislike for that particular method when it was doubtful that she’d ever tried it. This blog is my attempt at convincing her without even knowing why she reacted so negatively.

Myth #1: It Doesn’t Work

So plain and simple, does she think clicker training is all hog-wash? Maybe a new fad that is going to come and go faster than slap bracelets? The hard science behind clicker training predates most modern trainers. Clicker training is based on some of fundamental principles of learning theory that applies to all animals – yes, even people. It works and has been proven to work when used corrected by thousands of trainers all over the world as well as scientific studies in operant conditioning in a wide range of animals.

Myth #2: They will always have to carry a clicker with them

Not at all, the clicker is used mostly to teach a new behavior. Once the behaviour is learned, there is no reason to continue to use the clicker unless the behaviour needs refreshing or fixing.

However, remember that a new behaviour that looks great at home or at the training school may need reinforcement every time you go to a new environment. When you take a puppy to a new place, with new sounds and new distractions, you should always be prepared to reward a command as if it’s a new command.

For more on this thought, see Mindful Behaviour’s blog: http://clickertrainingtoronto.net/2012/08/18/when-can-i-leave-food-away-from-training-my-answer-is-never/#more-697

Myth #3: It will turn my dog into a robot with a remote

I think this myth comes from the word “clicker” and it’s meaning with a tv remote. That is really the only reason I can think of for this myth. Anyone who has seen a dog in the process of learning something new with the clicker knows this myth could not be further from the truth. I remember watching one of the first puppies that I raised with clicker training learning. She was a great little problem solver, the wheels in her head were always going and she loved to figure it out. When I was teaching her “down on your mat” by free shaping her, she already knew “down” and she already knew that the game we were playing was when she stepped on the mat, I clicked and she got a treat. But when I didn’t click for just stepping on the mat, she cocked her head. She thought about it and offered a sit. I clicked that and she got a treat. She went back to the mat and sat again, since a sit was not my desired behaviour I didn’t want to click it twice, so I didn’t. Again, she stopped to think about it. She took a few steps forward as she thought, then lay down. Those few steps however had led her off the mat. I almost clicked, but hesitated and in my hesitation she quickly realized her error and in a down she shimmied back on to the mat – maintaining the down position and moving herself back to the mat. Eureka! She got a click and a jackpot of treats. Then she went right back to the mat and lay down! She never forgot that behaviour because it was one that she learned and figured out. Watching her learn that behaviour was not like watching a remote control car, it was an eye opening experience into how bright and smart dogs are. She enjoyed the challenge and because she was an active participant in the learning process, she never forgot it. She was creative and experimental in her attempts at figuring it out – you never see creativity in dogs trained with aversive methods!

Myth #4: My dog will learn faster if I just force them to do it!

Nothing could be further from the truth. As the example above shows, the whole process of teaching that puppy to go to her mat and down was maybe two minutes. She was actively involved in the learning and figuring out what I was looking for her to do. Because she played a big part in the learning, she never forgot it. That was a trick I could go back and demo with her any time for classes and she always remembered (even though it was something we didn’t use at home often).

Myth #5: My dog will respect me more if I dominate them; clicker training is too fun for creating respect!

Respect is built on trust. When I train with my dogs they are happy to be working, they look up to me and are eager to please. They know if they do it wrong I am not going to punish them, which makes them feel at ease and able to think. We work together, we play together and they know that I am a fair and benevolent leader. Not a leader forced on them by kicking, choking or worse.

Myth #6: I don’t want a “one size fits all” training technique
One size does not fit all and most positive trainers have several tools in their toolbox – from harnesses to management. Clicker training is used on horses, dolphins, chickens, children, dogs, cats … you name it! Not because it’s the only solution all those trainers want to use, but because it’s a training method based in real science and operant conditioning which applies across the board. It can be used for aggressive dogs, puppies, scared dogs and just teaching a new trick to a well behaved dog. It is safer than aversive training techniques like prong collars, choke collars or other punishment-based techniques. Here is what science tells us about using punishment in training (Quotes from The Principles of Learning Theory by Michael Domjam, 5th Edition):
– “Punishment produces an decrease in the overall rate of responding” meaning it shuts the animal down.
– “Punishment suppresses behavior through the same mechanism that produces response suppression to a fear-conditioned stimulus” meaning your dog is behaving out of fear, not respect.
– “Suppression of behavior is not viewed as reflecting the weakening of the punished response. Rather, it is explained in terms of the strengthening of competing avoidance responses.” This means that when you crank a dog’s prong collar for lunging at another dog, they are not learning not to bark, they are learning to be quiet to avoid the pinch of the prong collar. This may seem like the desired response, but the training has not changed the dog’s opinion of the other dog and all of a sudden an approaching dog is the trigger for a crank of the prong collar, which means the dog is learning to like other dogs even less.
You wouldn’t imagine putting a prong collar on a child for behaving badly, yet why is okay to put one on your dog. Clicker training is a kind of training that can be used safely on more animals – including children without negative side effects. Meanwhile punishment has been shown to have many negative side effects.

Anything that I’m missing?

I guess it’s possible that because I love clicker training, I am missing something else. Please do me a favor and comment below – tell me what other myths make you think clicker is hocus pocus.

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