It’s so frustrating not having a common language! I can never be sure when someone says they do “clicker training” if they truly do until I ask some defining questions or see them train. At seminars in which participants say they clicker train, sure as shootin’ as many as half are training-with-a-clicker, not clicker training. This lack of clarity is frustrating for those who are clicker trainers, frustrating for those who thought they were (and want to be!), and frustrating for me as the presenter. Even as a participant at some “clicker” seminars, I’ve been disappointed to find some highly respected, talented people promoting themselves as clicker trainers, but are unquestionably lure-reward-with-a-clicker trainers.
In an effort to differentiate between what is and is not clicker training, Part I described four areas in which misunderstanding generally occurs. While some trainers embrace some or even several of the advantages clicker training affords, it’s important to understand the profound yet subtle differences between approaches, to clarify precisely what clicker training is, especially as it differs from our closest cousin – lure-reward-with-a-clicker training. We cannot clearly communicate what and who we are unless we reserve the term “clicker trainer” for only those trainers who embrace the whole package.
Part I covered differences in “getting” behaviors and in timing the reward. The other two areas in which important differences occur are in delivering the treat to the dog and in how the trainer responds when the dog doesn’t perform as desired.
A huge advantage to using a behavioral marker such as a <click> is the ability to manipulate treat delivery to greatly enhance and speed training far more effectively than with any other approach. With lure-reward training the dog must be in the lured or cued position when getting the treat. For example, the dog is lured down and receives the treat in the down position. In training stay, the dog must be in place to get the reward. If he moves before getting the treat, the reward is withheld.
With clicker training, since <click> marks the moment of success and ends the behavior, the dog doesn’t have to remain in position to get the treat. A clicker trainer is able to select the most effective treat delivery to speed the dog’s learning for each and every behavior. Here’s a rundown of some of the different ways using treat delivery following a behavior marker can greatly facilitate and speed training:
• Re-set the behavior: Delivering the treat may be used to get to “start-over” position. For example, when working on lie down, the dog drops, the trainer clicks and either holds the treat far enough away so the dog stands up, or tosses it a short distance requiring him to get up to get it. Having eaten the treat, the dog is ready to do it again. Rewarding in position adds an extra step of having to get the dog out of position to repeat the behavior. In lure-reward training this is often done by luring between two positions, such as luring up then luring down again.
• Reward in place: A clicker trainer can, of course, reward in position as well. For example, when working on a duration exercise such as stay or settle, <click> marks the end of the time frame. The dog may be rewarded in place, eliminating the need to re-position the dog to start over. Rewarding in place can be helpful when working on a positional behavior such as heeling, but it’s not required. If the dog moves from position after the <click>, he still gets his reward, as <click> ends the behavior.
• To affect demeanor: Treat delivery can help increase animation or help calm an overly excited dog. For example, after the <click>, rewarding in place or requiring little movement of the dog may result in a calmer demeanor. On the other hand, skidding a treat along the floor for the dog to chase may create more enthusiasm.
• Action is the behavior: When the behavior is an action such as back-up or increase distance on a send-away, treat delivery can bring the dog back to the starting point. Similar to re-setting the behavior, the difference is that the trainer will <click> as the dog is in motion as opposed to a completed behavior. For example, while the dog is in the process of moving backwards, <click> tells him that movement is correct, and when he returns to the handler for a treat, he is ready for action again. Reinforcing movement is difficult without a marker.
• Increase distance: The clicker trainer can quickly build distance from the dog, for example when teaching a dog to go to a target or when working on distance cues. Because the treat doesn’t have to be right there at the moment of success, the trainer doesn’t have to be either. With lure training, the treat must be either strategically placed at the target (often a complicated maneuver to set up properly), or distance can be achieved only slowly, in small increments.
• Time: A behavioral marker buys time between the behavior and the presentation of the reinforcer. For example, when using a reward such as going outside to play, there may be a time lag between the <click> to mark the behavior and getting to the door, opening it, and letting the dog out. With the advantage of the behavioral marker, the clicker trainer has a huge variety of activities to use as reinforcers, mostly unavailable to the lure-reward trainer.
The first time someone sees clicker training with an untrained dog or puppy the gasps of disbelief and impressed “ahhhh”’s heard during a demonstration at a workshop or seminar are universal. It’s seemingly magic to see an untrained dog go from never having heard a <click> to happily rushing over to a blanket and throwing himself down on it in just a very few minutes. The first timer can’t help but be impressed with the voodoo speed at which a dog starts offering a seemingly complex chain of behaviors. They see it, and they believe it’s possible – for the experienced trainer. But developing faith that this non-directed, non-physical, non-controlled approach actually works for their dog? That’s problematic for any beginner clicker trainer. It’s especially difficult for someone with a background of luring, who is used to achieving automated responses. While the robotic response is not “learning”, nonetheless the instant gratification is highly reinforcing for the “lurer.”
In the beginning, it’s hard to have faith that this clicker stuff really works – just be patient and let the clicker do the communicating. It’s a natural human inclination to want to relieve the stress of learning – to alleviate any confusion or potential confusion the dog is feeling. This desire to actively help the dog is the most insidious habit of human beings, especially the lure-reward crossover trainer. When a dog seems confused, help him out. When a dog is frustrated, help him. When the dog acts helpless, come to his aid. When the trainer’s confidence in the method flies out the window, luring fills the void.
Faced with a dog that isn’t offering the behavior (whatever that behavior may be), the trainer pulls out a treat and lures to show the dog what to do. Then they try it again. Again, the dog fails to perform the behavior. Out comes another treat, and again the dog is lured into position. The trainer mistakenly believes that this gets the message across – and it certainly does. But not the message the trainer is hoping for. What the dog is learning is to do nothing until the trainer pulls out a treat, then follow the treat to get the reward. The result is “reinforced inactivity” or learned helplessness.
The dog’s inactivity is not a conscious decision. He is not sitting there thinking “I know what to do, but I won’t do it.” Rather his inactivity, his waiting behavior results in a positive consequence.
As if that’s not bad enough, after luring a few times in the mistaken belief that the problem was that the dog just needed to be shown a few more times, the trainer makes a renewed commitment to try shaping and waiting for behaviors. So she then tries to out-wait the dog – to hold out longer in hopes the dog will offer the behavior. But the dog doesn’t. After all, he’s already learned that he’s getting rewarded for inactivity – waiting to follow the lure. When the trainer holds out longer, but ultimately returns to a lure, she is simply increasing the duration of the wait. Not only does this reinforce waiting, it reinforces persistent waiting on a random schedule.
With or without a cue, giving in to the inclination to lure after non-compliance is a slippery slope to what the trainer then calls “stubborn.” “My dog refuses to obey me. He knows what I want. But he just doesn’t do it.” Would a dog that knows what we want, that knows he’s going to be rewarded handsomely for doing it, still refuse to do it? He’s perfectly willing to comply when lured. So since the dog is not unwilling to perform the behavior, is it that the dog is “sticking it” to the trainer? Do we honestly believe dogs do that? Of course not!*The answer is that the trainer has trained persistent waiting.
I feel great compassion for trainers who fall into this trap—after all, we all want to help our dogs. But it’s a false reprieve. Helping the dog eliminates his ability to discover and learn for himself – of far greater benefit both for the dog and for the trainer! The good news is that as soon as a trainer recognizes what she’s unintentionally doing and eliminates her inclination to help her dog – taking the necessary time to out-wait the wait – training takes a giant leap forward. And the thrill and excitement of seeing that light bulb go off in the dog’s head is so well worth the wait.
The Semantic Plea!
So that it – the four areas of confusion that separate the clicker trainer from other training approaches. While I am clearly an avowed clicker trainer (a true believer – one might say a missionary), I have no ill feelings for trainers who lure continuously to get a behavior. Or who choose to mark the behavior simultaneously with presenting the treat. Or who use the click as a “keep going” signal or “praise marker.” Or who reward the dog only in position. Or who lure to help the dog when he’s confused rather than using the clicker to allow the dog to figure it out himself. I have nothing against people who use clickers with other methods of training. Just please, please, please don’t call what they do “clicker training.” It robs the rest of us of being able to clearly communicate who we are and what we do. We are clicker trainers.
*[footnote] Some dogs may perform learned behaviors we might call “sticking it” to the trainer – but that’s a trained response that comes from improper (unintentional) training. It’s not something dogs do in the early stages of lure-reward-with-a-clicker or even with clicker training.