To Click or not to Click?
It always seems that there are a lot of really strong feelings in the dog world about just about everything out there. Mixed breed or pure bred? Raw or commercial? And when it comes to training approaches it is no different. I was surprised however, by the opposition and negative energy for "the Clicker".
I am the first to admit that using a Clicker is not the be all, end all method for training your dog. However, I also feel that it has a lot of value in certain situations. I like using a "marker" to indicate to my dogs, that yes, they have done what I am asking them to do. For the most part I always use my voice, with a higher-than-normal, enthusiastic "YES!" I say it the same way all of the time, and they all know what it means.
I use the Clicker when I am trying to teach a new behavior to my dog. When I am doing this, I train in a controlled environment, with only one dog at a time. What I mean by this is that I have my dog in a quiet, contained place with no distractions.
For me, this is the guest bedroom of my house or my fenced yard. My dog is typically not on a leash and other dogs aren't present.....(so if they decide they are bored with the whole exercise and wander off...all is well!) I have rarely used a Clicker when attending a dog training class or when training on leash in public as it is really hard for me to manage the dog, the leash, the Clicker and the reward!
I feel it is an excellent tool for shaping behaviors in your dog. I do a lot of conditioning and training with my dogs as well as conformation, agility and obedience. So I bring the Clicker out when I am at home, trying to work on something very precise with one of my dogs.
An example of this is a "Fix it" when my dog is going into a Free Stack. If one foot is in the wrong position, I want to be able to indicate to my dog to move that out of place foot into the right position by saying "Fix It". I start by moving the foot back myself and then Clicking the instant the foot touches down to the correct spot. After repeating several times, I then touch the foot lightly with my toe and repeat the "Fix It" command. As soon as my dog moves his foot into the correct position I Click. Eventually, I can just point with my hand and say "Fix It" and the dog will make the adjustment.
I like to use the Clicker, because I feel that it is very precise, more so than my voice, and is very definitive. I think our dogs like black and white...and the Clicker is just that. Once they "get it" using the Clicker it is a very short transition to using my voice with a "YES!" marker after asking for the behavior, and then another very short transition for this to become a habit and conditioned response to the command that has been given.
I think it all depends on how you use it. For me...my dogs know that a "Click" means they have done something right. They also know that my voice marker "YES!" means they have done something right as well. I find that on new behaviors...the consistency of the sound and the precision of the timing of delivering "the click" is the overriding reason to use the Clicker in the beginning.
Often the criticism of the Clicker is that you are always rewarding with food and constantly treating your dog. I have to disagree with this. In the beginning when you are training your dog on what the Clicker means, yes it is done with Click and Treat, Click and Treat. Same with the voice marker. However, over time (and it is a pretty short time!) I replace a lot of the treats with other things/rewards that my dogs like. These vary by my dogs and circumstances...from petting to play, tugging and continuation of the "game" what ever that may be at the time.
My goal is always to use the Clicker to teach the new behavior, and then to continue to practice it all the time so that I am ultimately getting the behavior out of my dog without the Clicker. I feel like a have been pretty successful in doing this with my dogs. I don't carry the Clicker around with me, nor do I carry treats around with me in my pockets all the time. Yet, I am able to practice these skills with my dogs regularly, have them respond they way that I want them to, and then reward with a lot of different things...praise, games, play, tug and yes sometimes treats!!! I did just recently bring my Clicker to dog class, and while it was hard as all get out to manage, I think in this instance it actually helped my dog.
I have a dog that loves to train and work at home but has a lot of uncertainty in dog classes and the ring. He is outgoing, loves to travel with us, walk downtown, hang out and have coffee and all those things (I drink the coffee, he sticks with water!), but he feels pressure and uncertainty when he is in dog classes and the ring for what ever reason. I currently have him enrolled in a Basic Obedience Class just for the sole purpose of trying to help him overcome his nervousness in class/ring environments. He knows all of his basic commands and is capable of doing everything that is currently being taught in class, but can hardly even relax and focus. I decided on the third week of class to bring my Clicker with me and see if that might help him. Since he already knows the commands, I thought I would go ahead and Click and Treat him each time he successfully executed the exercise. I was really pleased with the results. Each time he did something correctly, I Clicked and Treated him. He knows and understands the Clicker. Amidst all the distractions and anxiety on his part, when the instructor called the command and he did it and I "Clicked" I think he was able to connect to the Clicker....something he knows and really understand that "yes! I did it, this is what she wants and I just did it!"
He was able to focus much more and seemed to relax a bit. I brought it again for the following week and used it in the beginning of class but put it away at about the half way point. The next week I just used it for the first few minutes of class, and I really feel he is improving, much more focused and relaxed. There is a wide cross-section of individuals in the class, from beginners, to middle of the roaders (that is me!) to long time dog people who have been actively training and working dogs for years. When I brought my Clicker out I asked if the other students would mind if I used it for my dog, since I didn't want to throw any one else off in class. No one else minded that I used it except for one other student...who wasn't concerned that it would distract her dog but rather was very dismissive of the notion of Clicker training...and told me so in as many words!
(Which is a whole other topic....as a parent I've never walked up to other parents and gave them my opinion on how they were raising their child, however in the dog world, it happens ALL the TIME!!! What gives?!?!) So since she only objected to me and I wasn't going to distract her dog I went ahead and used it...and got the results I was looking for with my dog.
So at the end of the day....I find the Clicker a useful training tool that has helped me get my dogs from Point A to Point B. It will continue to be my choice when teaching new behaviors and I highly recommend giving it a try or at least doing a little research on how to use it properly. Karen Pryor is the authority on Clicker training and there is a lot of really good information out there on how to use the Clicker for training. Just like people, every dog is different...I like to have a lot of tools in my tool bag and this is one of them! Do you Click or not?