When a training class or a book advertises clicker training, what does that mean? Is this the right kind of training for you with your dog? What can be taught with clicker training? Are there disadvantages to using the clicker? Can this type of training harm your dog? Let's talk about what clicker training is, and what it is not.
The Pure Form
In its purest form, clicker training uses only positive reinforcement, based on research about operant learning theory. Practitioners argue about the terminology, but it is not necessary to understand all the terms in order to successfully use these techniques in training a dog.
Many books have been written on the subject, including the now revised Don't Shoot the Dog! by Karen Pryor. An academic with expertise in training sea mammals, she transferred the techniques to dog training. Her website, www.clickertraining.com, is one of many online sources for information about clicker training.
One highly practical book on the subject for beginners is The Power of Positive Training by Pat Miller. If you are unable to find a class that uses clicker-training principles and if you are good at reading and following instructions closely, this book contains enough information to enable you to teach your dog a lot of skills and tricks. Other great books on clicker training are available, too, and more are being written all the time.
When you train with a clicker, the general idea is to teach your dog through repetition that the sound of the clicker means a food reward is coming very soon. There's no yelling, no hitting, no yanking, and yet the dog learns to do what the person wants the dog to do. This experience becomes a revelation to handlers about how dogs REALLY learn, and that yelling and hitting are unnecessary-as is the damage done by the yelling and hitting, to the dog's future ability to learn and to trust humans.
A class or private training help will be necessary for most people, since we're not all good at watching ourselves. We inadvertently give our dogs confusing signals, resulting in a great deal of frustration and lack of success in training. So, if at all possible, seek out in-person training to help you with your dog.
Pure clicker training includes no punishment. In practice, people who teach clicker training often do advocate punishment for various behaviors. It's up to each dog's family to decide what they are willing and not willing to do with their dog. Training techniques that are damaging to some dogs may not be harmful to others. This is another reason to have the help of an instructor or private trainer.
Can It Hurt?
Pure clicker training is not going to hurt your dog. The worst that could happen is teaching the dog a silly behavior that might contradict something else you want the dog to learn later. Since no trauma and minimal stress are involved in this form of training, it's a very safe method for a beginner to try with almost any dog.
You could get hurt if your dog snatches food from your hand. Various methods help you teach your dog not to do this, and you will find them explained in clicker-training books and taught in training class.
If your skill and/or patience as a clicker trainer are not sufficient for your dog's behavior issues, harm could come from not having adequate control over the dog. A dog could hurt someone, or be hurt, which is why we train our dogs in the first place. Be sure to get the help of a behavior specialist or trainer to determine if other measures are needed with your specific situation.
Also, be sure you are using appropriate restraint methods and management with your dog, so that lack of reliable training doesn't put the dog and others at risk. Clicker trainers often advocate the use of a head halter to be able to restrain a dog without pain until training has progressed.
When specific skills need to be taught, the reality is that most trainers mix and match techniques to fit the dog, the handler, and the task being taught. A clicker may or may not be used, but good trainers always understand and apply learning theory and positive reinforcement to help dogs learn.
Clicker trainers teaching dogs to perform specific functions-such as competition dog sports, assistance tasks for people with disabilities, and even problem-solving for behavior issues-eventually train the task to the point that a clicker is no longer used to reinforce it. Other rewards, such as praise and games, need to be continued forever, at least occasionally, to keep a learned behavior strong.
Some of these rewarding games can be taught with a clicker, too. One example of this is retrieving. Whatever method is used to teach retrieving, retrieving is so inherently enjoyable to most dogs that it usually becomes something they want to do for fun.
It HAS to be Fun!
All work should be fun for dogs. After all, it's not their responsibility to earn their daily meals. It's our responsibility to take care of them, whether they work or not.
Clicker training is a way to learn how to motivate your dog, and how to time your praise and positive reinforcement. Delivering positive reinforcement with good timing is a skill that everyone handling a dog needs to learn. It will also enrich your life in every relationship you have with humans.
Kathy Diamond Davis is the author of the book Therapy Dogs: Training Your Dog to Reach Others. Should the training articles available here or elsewhere not be effective, contact your veterinarian. Veterinarians not specializing in behavior can eliminate medical causes of behavior problems. If no medical cause is found, your veterinarian can refer you to a colleague who specializes in behavior or a local behaviorist.
Copyright 2003 - 2009 by Kathy Diamond Davis. Used with permission. All rights reserved.