What Is Clicker Training?

What is Clicker Training?

In this article, I’m going to give a brief history of dog training, an overview of the clicker philosophy, how to go about becoming a clicker trainer, and available resources.

History of Dog Training

Man has been training dogs since the beginning of domestication.  However, formal, widespread dog training really began after the two World Wars.   Particularly after WWII, with the baby boom and a generally affluent population, there was an increased interest and demand for formal dog training along with a boom in guide-dog and police-dog training.

There were over 250,000 dogs used during these two wars, and many men who learned the skill of dog training.  When they got out of the military, they found they had a marketable skill.  Unfortunately, the skills they learned were not as suitable for pet dogs as for war dogs.  Training methods for war dogs were necessarily harsh: they needed to train quickly, prepare the dogs for battlefield conditions, and weed out the soft dogs.

During this time terms such as “firm but fair” were common; the dog was cast as an adversary, and it was believed that the owner had to bend the dog’s will to his own.  It was also believed that given half a chance, the dog would certainly “put one over on you.”

The main tool used in dog training during that time (and still to this day) were choke chain collars.  It was very common for trainers to tell owners that the collar did not hurt the dog, although every time the collar was jerked the dog would squeal.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s books on how to train dogs were beginning to be published.  For the most part this was a sad day for dogs.  There were books that advocated techniques such as “helicoptering” your dog when he misbehaved, which consists of hanging the dog by his leash and choke chain and then twirling him over your head as if he were a lasso.  Another technique which is still commonly in use today is the “ear pinch” to force a dog to retrieve.  There were also more subtle techniques such as the “alpha roll” and the “jowl shake.”  It was thought that these methods were used by wolves in packs, but in reality they are not, and they are very dangerous techniques.  If a 110 lb. Rottweiler decides he doesn’t want to be picked up by his jowls and shaken, it’s probably not going to happen.

In reality, most dogs today are still trained with some variation of these harsh methods.  Fortunately for both dogs and owners, times are changing.  Owners are becoming more informed and sophisticated; they are less likely to use such methods on their dogs.  Certainly the methods we use on dogs would land us in jail if we used them on our kids.

Clicker Training

Clicker training is a philosophy. Clicker training is based on the operant conditioning principles which were developed by B. F. Skinner during the 1930s.  Skinner developed a box, and when the animal in the box pressed the right lever, food would come out.  Through many variations of this experiment, he discovered — in very, very simple and incomplete terms — that if properly motivated, animals can be trained to do almost anything without coercion.    In 1984 Karen Pryor wrote a book called “Don’t Shoot the Dog,” which turned the world of dog training on its ear! Ms. Pryor trained marine mammals, and used the operant conditioning principles of B.F. Skinner.  Her book brought these techniques to the layman in very easy-to-understand language.

Another huge influence around this time was Dr. Ian Dunbar.  Dr. Dunbar brought the idea of looking at things from the dog’s perspective to the forefront.  As he says, “Carpets are the cutting edge in bathroom technology to a puppy: he can pee and not get his feet wet.”  Dr. Dunbar also founded the Association of Pet Dog Trainers whose goal is to improve training methods and provide education to both the public and dog trainers.

So, what exactly is clicker training?  In clicker training, we first and foremost look at our dog as a friend and partner — not as an adversary.  Secondly, we understand that if the dog isn’t behaving properly, it is probably our fault, not the dog’s; the message hasn’t gotten across.  Finally, we think training is fun, and so does our dog.  When I bring out my clicker and treats, my dog, Jimmy Joe, is right there with tail wagging, saying “Alright!  It’s fun-time!”

Instead of punishing behaviors we DON’T like, in clicker training we reinforce behaviors we DO like.  We use differential reinforcement or ignore behaviors we do not like.  The dog works with us of his own volition, rather than through the threat of pain or fear.  We are coaches and teachers, not enforcers.

We use the clicker to mark the behaviors that we do like – it is a way to communicate with the dog, “That, what you did right there, was right, and it has earned you a reinforcement.”  This tool makes it much clearer to the dog what it is you want.  The click allows you to refine behaviors in quite a specific fashion.

The key to clicker training is to find what motivates your dog and use it, use it, use it!  Most dogs are motivated by food, but don’t forget the power of going for a walk, playing a game of tug or fetch, greeting a dog, etc.  Figure out what your dog loves and use it. My Jimmy Joe never eats before he’s done a sit/down/stand/high five/bark/roll over.  And what’s more, he has fun doing it!

Getting Started Clicker Training

It’s not always easy to find someone to help you get started using a clicker for dog training, but you should certainly be able to find a trainer who uses positive reinforcement methods.  A good guideline as to whether or not a trainer is a “positive reinforcement trainer” is what kind of equipment the trainer recommends.  If they train with choke chains, pinch collars or electronic collars, they are not really positive reinforcement trainers, even though they may call themselves such.  Many trainers use food and choke chains, so they are using some positive reinforcement, but the very nature of a choke chain is aversive, or unpleasant, to the dog, and that is not consistent with the philosophy of clicker training.  You can call the Association of Pet Dog Trainers for a referral, although be aware that not all members of the APDT are positive reinforcement trainers — you still need to find out what methods they use.

Raising Canine has a school for dog trainers which focuses on operant training for dogs, dog behavior, working with clients and addressing client compliance, and the science behind behavior modification.