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Three reasons to use a clicker, or not.

April 8, 2017

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.

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 “liking” post and “like” a page or business. They don’t mean the same thing. Neither a clicker or Facebook when used by themselves have little or no effect on improving communication.

Many folk learned their virtual social skills in the list and email groups. We learned to follow threads, avoided social reactivity and explain ourselves with detail. The new tool for virtual socialisation has adapted those skills, and the folk who missed the email shaped behaviours are shaped in this 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. But for those who arrived in the clicker period these skills are often absent and the clicker itself becomes central to the protocol.

I use a clicker

I am very specific and selective 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 disinterest 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)
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 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.

It can separate the event from the reinforcer.

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. I still see dogs return to the feed location and demonstrate the desired behaviour.
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.
It is the understanding of the complete cycle that is the critical skill.

This is not 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 make 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.

This is benefit of using a clicker, but it is not clicker training.

Want to learn training skills? Come into my barn …..

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 8, 2017 2:08 pm

    “It make 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.
    This is benefit of using a clicker, but it is not clicker training”

    Yes, yes, yes and yes! Thanks for that. One of the reasons I teach others to use the clicker is to create more awareness and planning and avoid the sloppiness that comes from just delivering treats without a lot of forethought.

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