Clicker Training Myths   2 comments

Clicker training is one positive training technique that, when done correctly, can be extremely effective in teaching dogs virtually any new behavior. The clicker is a hand-held device that is used to clearly communicate with the dog when he has done the correct behavior. By teaching the dog that the sound of the click means a treat is coming, he learns that when he hears the “click” he did the right thing. It is similar to saying “Good!” when your dog does what you want, but it is much sharper and more consistent, and thus easier for your dog to understand. However, many people shy away from using it because of several myths that have been perpetuated.

Myth #1: I will always have to carry a clicker with me.

Not true! A clicker is used to teach new behaviors. Once your dog knows a behavior, you know longer use the clicker for it. So, for example, if you are introducing your dog to the “sit” cue, you would do so in a training session with the clicker in hand. Every time he sits, you would click, and then feed him a treat. Once he understands that he should sit to get the click, he will start sitting regularly. When he is doing this you can say “sit” as he sits down, and then feed the treat. After more repetitions, you can say “sit” and expect him to sit in response. You no longer need the clicker!

Myth #2: I will always have to have treats with me.

Nope! If you train your dog using clicker training (or any positive-training technique) you teach your dog that doing what you ask is fun. By having many repetitions of hearing a cue, doing what you ask, and getting a reward, your dog’s brain makes the connection that hearing the cue and responding is a great thing to do. Once he’s made this connection, you no longer need to feed him for every repetition. You can instead substitute real-life rewards (throwing his ball, petting him, letting him outside, giving him dinner) or have no reward at all, and your dog will still listen happily! With some dogs, you can even ask for an easy cue a reward for a harder cue they are learning – they enjoy obeying so much they consider it a reward!

I like to periodically feed my dog a treat for obeying, even after he knows a cue well. I don’t care how much you love your job, the occaisional “bonus” in recognition for your hard work will make you work harder, and the same goes for your dog. Remember, sitting or staying may seem easy to us, but in many situation it is work for your dog.

Myth #3: My dog will only do what I say if he knows I have a treat.

Not if you follow this very simple rule: Never show your dog a treat until after he has done what you ask. Dogs are smart – if they only get a treat when they see it in your hand as you ask for a behavior, they’re not going to do a behavior when they see no treat because they know none is coming! So do not set up this habit; never hold a treat while asking for a behavior. The beautiful thing about using the clicker is that you do not have to “bribe” your dog by showing him the treat. When you are in a training session you have your clicker, and the dog is working for the click. He cannot see a treat before he works. Once you have clicked you have told him what he did was correct. He already knows he did the right behavior, so you have a few seconds to reach into your pocket, or on the counter, or into the bag to grab a treat and give it to him. The treat does not have to come instantly, so it doesn’t have to be in your hand, bribing him to work. As your training sessions for a cue no longer use the clicker (as he has figured out the game/cue) you don’t have to reward every time. Your dog has not been seeing the treat before working, he has never known what he was going to get, or even if he would get anything, and he will still work because it has paid off in the past and it is fun!

For some behaviors you may show your dog the treat to lure him into position when you first introduce the behavior (for example, putting a treat in front of the dog’s nose and lowering it to the ground so that he lays down). If you start a behavior using luring, fade the lure (treat) as quickly as possible, preferably within a half-dozen repetitions. Dogs are creatures of habit, so if you do several repetitions with a treat in your hand, and then move your hand in the exact same way with no treat, he will probably still follow it! At that point you can stop showing him the treat until after he has completed his work.

Myth #4: Clicker training is too complicated.

Clicker training is no more complicated than any other method of training, and as with any method of training there is a learning curve for you and your dog. The difference between the learning curve in positive training and compulsory training is that when you make mistakes learning how to train positively, the worst that happens is your dog gets an extra treat. When you make mistakes learning how to train with compulsory techniques, you can permanently damage your dog, physically or psychologically, and destroy the bond you have with her.

The idea behind clicker training is very simple: When the dog does what you want, he hears a click and knows the behavior was right. Then he gets a treat. What can feel complicated is learning how to “juggle” a leash, treats, and a clicker, possibly while giving hand signals. To simplify, work at home in a small space off-leash, put the clicker on a wrist-band so you can drop it but keep it near at hand, and keep treats on a nearby table or in a treat pouch (a small pouch typically worn on the hip). The other thing that can feel complicated is that your timing has to be good. If your dog sits, and then looks to the right, and then yawns, and then hears a click, he’s going to assume the yawn was the right behavior. With a little practice, however, almost everyone can learn to catch the correct behavior. And if you make mistakes, like I said above, your dog just gets a few extra treats and will happily forgive you!

Myth #5: Clicker training takes too long.

Not once you and your dog know how to do it. Clicker training is really teaching your dog how to think. You’re not just physically moving them into a sit, you’re making them figure out what they have to do to earn that click. Until they learn how to think this way, it can take longer to teach a new cue than if you did just physically force them into position. Once they have learned how to think that way, however, you can add new cues like lightening! The other day I put a step stool in front of my dog, intending to teach him to step up on it with two paws. He had done a similar behavior over a year ago for a few repetitions, but it was never reinforced again, so it was practically brand new. Within four clicks he had the right behavior.

Click 1: Nosing the stool

Click 2: Pawing the stool

Click 3: Putting weight on the paw on the stool

Click 4: Putting both front feet on the stool

The whole process took under 30 seconds, and then he was doing the behavior reliably. He has been clicker trained for under a year, but he has the process down.

Here is a video clip of a trainer teaching her dog to pick up a ball and put it in a basket using a clicker. This was the first time the trainer had ever introduced this behavior or any similar one to her dog.

Since her dog knew how to think with the clicker, she learned the new fairly complex behavior in approximately a minute. With more repetitions the trainer could then name the behavior, and have a highly reliable cue!

Also, since clicker training really makes your dog think, it is great mental exercise for him. You may take your dog on long runs every day, but if he never gets any mental exercise he can still have excess energy to burn since his mind hasn’t been worked. Many people find that a good training session tires their dog out as much as a good walk, and a tired dog is a happy dog (and one who isn’t getting into trouble)!

In short, clicker training can be a great way to train many dogs. The clicker is a training tool which helps you communicate with your dog effectively. Once you and your dog learn how to use the clicker together, you’ll both have a blast learning new cues at the speed of light!

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Posted May 9, 2010 by Eileen in Training Styles

2 responses to “Clicker Training Myths

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  1. Wow!!!! Impressive. There go all the myths about how hard it is to clicker train. Thanks for posting this.


  2. Eileen-I am so excited to try the clicker technique! How great that dogs receive positive reinforcement for doing something correctly rather than punishment for incorrect behaviors. This is such a change from the training techniques used in the 80s and 90s. Panda and I are looking forward to learning new things together!

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