Clicker Training for Dogs
***Update. This page has recently been found by a group of dog folks who are very much in favor of clicker training. As evidenced by the comments below I thought I’d add a little bit to the article to clarify some of my positions.
First off, to those who strongly disagree with me, I thank you for coming here and voicing your opinion. In nearly every public forum where I and my colleagues participate and shared our dislike for your style of training we are nearly always summarily banned for having a differing opinion.
As much as I don’t agree with your opinion I don’t fault you for having it and I’m not about to censor you for disagreeing with me. So as long as you keep your comments respectful with no cursing I’ll continue to keep them on this page with no censoring. I would encourage you to do the same on the other websites where you share opinions with varying colleagues.
Second off, in a selfish way I thank you for commenting. Google looks highly on articles with comments so your comments are helping to bring more people here to be educated on this topic.
On to the clarification. I have never asserted that clickers and treats don’t work. I KNOW they work. Anyone can see they work within minutes to train a dog to sit, lie down, or a whole variety of behaviors. The dispute I have isn’t on WHETHER they work or not.
Conversely, I know that abuse works as well. No, don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating abuse just as I’m not advocating clickers by saying I know they work. But tell me, if your dog jumps on you and you smack him in the head with a frying pan, how many times will he jump on you?
So the argument isn’t about whether abuse works, clickers work, e-collars work, etc. We all know that they ALL work.
The difference comes in with the degree to which they work, the amount of time/effort to achieve satisfactory results, and the by-products of the method. Let me elaborate:
- Abusing your dog through smacking, hitting, kicking, etc. CAN work very fast to get rid of some behaviors. So it ticks a box as far as being timely and efficient. It doesn’t tick the other boxes. You don’t often see dogs get to high levels of training through abusive, emotion based and angry methods. Also, the by-products of the training are awful. The dog comes to fear the owner, hate life, and is at greater risk for real injury.
- Using motivators or a lack of motivators as the sole training method. To me, this one ticks all three boxes in a negative way. You CAN achieve quick results but they are very basic. For example, you can teach a dog to sit or lie down with a clicker super fast. As you want to take that training, though, and make it more ‘real-world’ by adding distractions, overcoming the dog’s natural drives, etc. that will take an enormous amount of time and effort. Most dog owner aren’t going to be able to develop the skills necessary for that and few dog owners will be willing to invest the time. What you end up with is very basic and rudimentary training that took a long time to achieve. At my company we regularly get clients who have been going to this type of training for months, and in some cases years, to correct issues like aggression, leash pulling, destruction, and other problems that are literally turned around in minutes, hours, or days with better methods. This leads to the by-products that I don’t like from this movement of training. So many dogs end up in shelters and euthanized because they were ‘trained’ using inferior methods that get lower end results or take too much effort to get desired results. Are dogs abused through clicker training? Absolutely not. But the lack of ability to produce quantifiable and qualifiable results ends up with an awful by-product.
I, very often, see proponents of this method talk about their ‘successes’ in ‘training’ an aggressive dog, or a destructive dog, or a hyper dog. Frequently those successes were built on management with drugs, management with avoiding scenarios (we’ve had many clients been told by their ‘positive’ trainers that in order to fix their dog’s aggression they just had to avoid dogs…not so much of a fix), or simply excuses like ‘well, this breed is just that way’ or ‘there is a ceiling with every dog so this is as far as we’re going to get’ or other such excuses. The successes that these trainers enjoy are far inferior to the successes enjoyed by a more stabilized approach. So, again, I don’t doubt certain successes in this style. I just happen to know that there are far greater successes within reach.
- Using what I call a ‘stabilized approach’ or what other trainers refer to as a ‘balanced approach’. When this approach is done wrong it can absolutely have bad by-products. I’m not ignorant of the damage that unskilled, cruel, or idiotic trainers have done with pinch collars and electric collars. But with even a little bit of skill someone who is using a stabilized approach will be able to achieve high end results, in a quicker time, with no negative by-products. That just isn’t a claim that can be made by any other style of training.
I have years and years of anecdotes that I could share but one that I often like to think of was a client I worked with a few summers back. She had an 8 year old dog with severe aggression issues that she adopted when the dog was 1. It was her love for this dog that actually inspired her to enroll in one of the most respected University level dog behavior programs in the country. These were the folks doing the studies, writing the papers, creating the research on why their method is better. In four years she graduated and hung out her shingle as a dog trainer after having worked with professors and professionals in the industry using positive methods, clickers, motivators, etc. None of it had any effect, though. Despite what studies told her she couldn’t see any sort of change and was forced into management mode for 7 years and keeping her dog isolated from other dogs.
She happened to be in my town, Salt Lake City, for three weeks, far removed from her home back East. We met two times. We used a pinch collar and an electric collar along with rewards, primarily praise but also some treats. We used methods that I developed designed to correct the aggression, teach better leash skills, teach her skills for focusing, and teaching her how to self manage. She was only briefly in town, I would have loved to have worked with her more. She confided in me later, though, that with those two sessions her dog had made more progress in three weeks than she had in 7 previous years of working with Doctors, Professors, and bright minds in the dog training profession.
Do I discount what professors and researchers have to say? No…not really. I see some value in what they are doing. But it’s common knowledge that the money for research follows popular opinion. You want grants? Start doing research that supports what people want to hear. That doesn’t make me a flat-earther. It just means I have a healthy skepticism for scientific studies as we all should. As soon as scientists start putting out drugs that don’t maim and kill, make weather predictions that are always right, delve into the human psyche to show predictable and verifiable results when variables are changed, make economic predictions that actually occur…then let’s start pointing to studies as infallible.
Until then, and while scientists continually get things wrong and are continually shown to have bias in how they conduct their studies, let’s look at the data and make our own interpretations instead of blindly tossing out studies instead of results that someone has been able to achieve on their own.
To sum it up, does clicker training work? Absolutely. Just not on a level that I would feel comfortable charging for and putting my name on. I’ve made a nice career with thousands of happy clients and dogs based on a stabilized approach to training and if the means ever come out to accomplish that with purely motivators I will adapt to that. Until then, I’m going to stick with what gets the best results for both dog and owner.****
There are some little known secrets about clicker training for dogs that most professional dog trainers don’t want you to know. The fact is that clicker training is not effective yet it has become one of the biggest movements in dog training despite the fact that it is deeply flawed and based on incorrect understanding of dog behavior and learning. How can I make such a bold assertion? Read on.
Clicker training has it’s first beginnings back in the 1960s when animal trainers were using clickers and whistles to train pigeons, dolphins, and other animals for military application.
For example, dolphins were trained to use their natural sonar to locate mines underwater in harbors and off coast lines.
Sound like a great idea, right?
In theory it was. The following points, though, outline why this can be great for dolphins but bad for your family pet:
- These dolphins being trained were 100% dependent on their trainers for food. If they didn’t work they didn’t eat. All of the dolphin’s meals for the day were divvied out as the dolphin performed his or her tasks. This is fine if you are a full time trainer and your only job is to give the dolphin his mackerel for his work. What about the family dog, though? Do you really think it’s a good idea that your dog’s entire food consumption is dependent on whether or not he wants to lie down and stay when someone knocks on the door? Do you want to make your dog’s meal contingent on whether or not he ignores the cat and comes when called? Can you imagine the hassle of carrying around your dog’s meals all day long so you can gradually parse them out for good behavior? The logistics of this idea are ridiculous.
- You can’t correct a dolphin. I’ve yet to see a training collar big enough for a dolphin. If you try to use a spray bottle on a dolphin like you can with a dog or cat I don’t think it has the same effect. What are you going to do? Get in the tank and start smacking the dolphin around? Of course not. There is no effective and humane way to correct a dolphin. As a result the trainers HAD TO devise other methods to train behaviors.There ARE effective and humane ways to administer corrections to dogs. Why ignore those when they speed up the learning process, improve the relationship between the dog and owner, and make behaviors more sure and certain.
- The effectiveness of the training wore off in the ‘real world’. When these dolphins were done with training and sent out into the ocean to do their job the trainers were surprised to find out that they lost several dolphins. Despite all the clickers and the whistles the dolphins still didn’t respond to their training.
Simple. Clickers and whistles don’t provide deterrents for bad behaviors. They ONLY provide positive motivation for good behavior. What happens when results of behavior were better than what the trainer was offering? The dolphin is left looking at this wide open world full of fish, vegetation, tides, rocks, caves, other dolphins, etc. and they realize that they’d rather go after the distraction then go to the trainer.
In realizing this the military just came to realize that this was a ‘cost of doing business’. If you are going to train dolphins, well…you may just lose some. Okay, let’s move on to training the next batch.
What does that mean for the family dog, though? If you train the dog in the living room with clickers and treats and no distractions what do you think will happen when you attempt to transition that training to the real world? There are a lot of things in the real world (bikes, cats, dogs, kids, cars, squirrels, etc.) that are far more interesting than your clicker and treats.
Remember, many of the dolphins did come back after their task. Not all of them swam off into the wide open sea.
Are you willing to risk that it’s your dog, though, who cares more about distractions than he does about your rewards?
The bottom line is that clicker training for dogs can be great if you are teaching tricks or other behaviors that don’t need to be performed with any level of distraction. The second you want to add distractions to the mix, though, this style of training will leave much to be desired.