The concept of “being a clicker trainer” is always going to lead to argument and misunderstanding because it cannot exist alongside the science and technology. It is a “fakery” of our time.

No Clicker Trainers

The clicker itself is a simple tool that when used in conjunction with technology provides clarity and understanding in teaching. Using Facebook does not make you social, it is the tool that gives you the opportunity to be social. You still need some skills and understanding of what being social is. We learn the difference between socially “liking” post or “like” a page or business, and actually liking the business or what they stand for. They may not mean the same thing to everyone. It may mean we support the author, the sentiment or the cute picture or are just responding to marketing. Neither a clicker or Facebook when used by themselves have little or no effect on improving communication.

Many of us learned our virtual social skills in the early lists and email groups. We learned how to follow threads, avoided social reactivity and explain ourselves with excruciating detail making no presumptions about the knowledge of the readers. The new tool for virtual socialisation has adapted those skills, and the folk who missed the email shaped behaviours are shaped by this quick response, icon based era.

I can see the similarity in dog training. Skills established pre-clicker evolution, were adapted and honed with the use of the new tool. The clicker-emergence period magnified what we knew and didn’t know. But for those who arrived later the skills are often absent and the clicker itself becomes central to the protocol.

I use a clicker, but:

When would a clicker be of benefit?

I am very specific and selectively choose when a clicker would benefit a situation.

It is a tool that can be used to teach very accurate, precise outcomes when based with exquisite timing and relevant reinforcement. It requires an understanding of what you want to teach and how it should be carried out. The difference between a move that is correct but stressed and a move that is correct and relaxed.
I did not appreciate this when I first used a clicker. It has tremendous power, to build and equally to confuse. A confused learner will show a half-hearted interest in learning new things, often exhibit low commitment or at the other extreme demonstrate frenetic anxiety to be right.

The clicker is a tool that rests on top of good teaching skills. If those skills or understanding are not present it becomes an irrelevant noise because consistency does not exist. The classic example is the advice to “click for a loose leash/lead”. The dog could be exhibiting 1001 different behaviours, a variety of which would be clicked giving the dog no salient information. The trainer could be lucky and get results, but not for the reasons they assumed. (Probably a dog able to ignore the clicks and respond to the timing of the food delivery).

When to click?

I use a clicker when I can anticipate the accurate repetition of the behaviour I would like repeated. When teaching the use of the clicker the operator should be able to arrange the environment so that the behaviour has a very high probability of occurring in a way that is desired and of benefit to the future of that individual. This is the skill that underlies the use of the clicker.

Without being able to set up, anticipate and clearly verbalise what the click is going to mark it becomes a non-effective, and confusing tool.

Our task as teachers is to teach these skills, which rarely arrive in a single lesson.

We begin with the use of reinforcers, how they are delivered, what is delivered, where it is placed and when it is delivered. This is an understanding of positive reinforcement. This is more important than the clicker. This is not clicker training.

If I do not consider a clicker is going to be of value to either the trainer or the dog then I would not advise its use. Its purpose is to improve communication and understanding, not to make the trainer feel good.

Separate behaviour from the reinforcer

It can separate the behaviour from the reinforcer by acting as a link, or bridge, between the two events.

For those of us that learned our skills pre-clicker, there was a predominance of using the food delivery which marked the successful outcome. The dog was lured, manipulated, encouraged into a down position and fed in that position. The dog would have selected a movement of the hand, either to collect or begin delivery of the treat as relevant, or the marker. I still see dogs return to the feed location and demonstrate the desired behaviour because when in that position it was the moment the hand dipped into the pocket.

Feed out of location

My dominant pattern of reinforcement (in the range of 85-90%) is feeding out of location. I feed where I want the learner to be when they start the next repetition of the behaviour. If I want energy in the behaviour then there will be animation in the set-up of that location – a chase to collect the treat, a catch.
If we are feeding in position then I do not see how a click benefits the communication since the learner will simply watch for the start of the delivery process.

If delivery begins where the dog cannot see the start of the delivery process then the audible marker, a clicker or verbal sounds, will do the job.
It is the understanding of the complete cycle that is the critical skill.

This is often absent in self-styled “clicker training”.

It makes us pay attention

The endless arguments for using clickers or words will continue for many generations yet. It really does not matter. Either will be just as valid when used with thoughtfulness, consistently followed by reinforcement, and salient.

What I do see is a verbal cascade of positive noises that are supposedly verbal-clicks that are NOT accurate, NOT consistently paired with reinforcement and have become non-salient to the dog.

I do think that the physical use of a clicker is more likely to be used with skill than verbalisation. The behaviour of pressing the clicker takes more conscious learning than verbal “good” and “yes”. It can be developed as new process as if we were learning a new musical instrument rather than an adaptation of verbal sounds that have been with us for life.

It makes us consciously aware of what we are doing.

It makes us pay attention.

It should make us ask questions, learn the technology and develop good skills.

Using a clicker is a tool that benefits training by increasing the chance of good communication, but there never can be “clicker training” without a good understanding of the processes that support it.

A tool does not define the process.


2 Comments

  1. Michael Nichols

    Excellent article. Crystallizes some rancom clicker concerns I have been wrestling with. Very helpful. One paragraph confuses me:

    “If delivery begins where the dog cannot see the start of the delivery process then the audible marker, a clicker or verbal sounds, will do the job.
    It is the understanding of the complete cycle that is the critical skill.”

    Can you clarify this for me a little? Thank you.

    Reply
    • Kay Laurence

      Thanks for the feedback.
      The dogs are often using a visual marker to know when reinforcement will begin. Frequently this is the reaching for the treat – hand goes to pocket, treat pouch, or the head nods. This limits what the dog can learn by the need to continually make eye contact with the salient movement.
      I may want to teach my dog to do something where they need to be visually focussed on the job, not me or my movement to mark. This is where the audible marker has such value.

      Reply

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