A Positive Trainer’s Positive Response
(The Constant Battle Waged in the World of Dog Training)
For the purposes of this post, I will refer to myself and my opinion as that of a positive “trainer”. This reference is because of the constrictions of the English language and the lack of a better term. I don’t train dogs professionally, as in, I don’t make money training dogs, and I don’t have an equivalent degree. I don’t make a living writing fiction either (though I would like to, and I do have a degree for that), but I do call myself a writer. I don’t think people should be defined by what they do to make money, but instead should be defined simply by what they do. I train dogs, my dogs, and I try to help people train their dogs. Therefore, I will define myself here as a dog trainer. I don’t represent clicker trainers as a whole, but I do clicker train. I study, I watch, I read, I learn, and I take the advice of the trainers and people I know who have more experience than I do. The opinion contained in this piece is mine, and mine alone. That’s the only opinion I know how to give.
First, I say with great enthusiasm and warmth, that I am glad to see people taking an interest in clicker training, in whatever capacity they choose to take an interest. In all honesty, the fact there are people who care enough to oppose, degrade, belittle or debate clicker training means that clicker training is officially on the dog training grid. That in itself is a huge accomplishment. Because for people to oppose you they must first notice you and being noticed means that people are listening.
So, let’s take a stroll through my opinion of clicker training and positive reinforcement based training. As a clicker trainer, a crossover trainer no less (that is, someone who has moved from another training method, typically a method that utilizes dominance theory and/or physical correction, to clicker training) I have personally been called “stupid”, “naïve”, “weak minded”, “unstable” and “insane”. I have been criticized by many for being “obsessed” with my dogs and unable to separate animals from people. I have been told I’m a hippie, a follower of the Green Party and a “PETA terrorist”. Let me clear a little of the record here.
I am a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the best universities in the nation (also one of the most liberal). I am a card carrying member of the NRA and a registered Republican. Some of my closest friends are Muslim, but I am a devout Catholic who supports legalizing gay marriage and contraception. I argue for a living, but I hate confrontation. I don’t start fights, but if pushed to it, I will end them. Please stop trying to put me into a stereotype or a nice little box just because of the way I choose to train my dogs. I come from an upper middle class family, I live in a blue collar household, and I have been beyond poor. I am not that easy to understand, and you certainly can’t group me that simply. Of all the radical and stereotypically contradictory beliefs I hold, I find it strange that people choose to oppose and debate me on my dog training methods, but hey, if that’s what people want to hone in on, fine by me, let’s talk.
I am a staunch believer in clicker training and operant conditioning. I do believe clicker training can be used for every dog breed, age, size, past history and dog sport or job. I also think it can be used for all species of animal (including people).
Clicker training is unique in that it allows and encourages the dog to make his own decisions. Clicker training is not about the clicker. The clicker is simply a tool to get this process rolling. Many clicker trainers who have been working with a dog for an extended period of time no longer use a clicker with that dog. I hardly ever use it with my dog Smokey, who has been working with the clicker for over a year now.
A clicker is forgiving of the dog making a mistake. This means that the dog can make as many mistakes as he wants and try as many new behaviors as he can think of without getting punished for it. The only option for him is to keep trying and eventually, get a reward. As you have probably experienced in your own life, oftentimes, you learn faster and retain information longer by making mistakes and working toward the right solution. In using clicker training, when the dog makes a mistake he isn’t punished physically, but he doesn’t receive the reward that he wants. His natural response is to keep trying until he gets it right and makes you click and give him the treat, because he wants the treat (this is why the value of the reward is so important, if he doesn’t want the treat, he doesn’t have a desire to try again to get it). By not physically punishing his mistakes, he isn’t afraid to try something new. And then to try again. When he finally gets the reward, he thinks back on his actions. “Okay,” he says to himself, “so A, B and C didn’t get me a treat, but D did. I will keep doing D.” Voila, you have yourself a repeated behavior you can put a cue to. It’s simple, but not easy.
Since most traditional trainers (I will define that here as a trainer who uses physical punishment, anything from a touch, to a collar pop, to a kick, to a full on hit) are typically so fond of comparing dogs to wolves, I will use a wolf example here.
In the wild, wolf packs use clicker training (or the behavioral learning theory behind clicker training) every day. When they are hunting, they are constantly communicating tidbits of information to themselves and the other members of the pack to get them closer to the reward (in this case, the kill). The sound of the “click” or the “mark” (be it a click from a clicker, a verbal word, a whistle, etc.) is just a way of transmitting information to the animal that yes, you have done something that is in the right direction of what I want, now you are going to earn a reward for doing that thing. In the wild, the hooves of the deer hitting rock can be a click, one of the wolves hunting partners rustling nearby can be a click. All are transmissions of information which are being stored away by the brain for later.
If the wolf pack doesn’t make the kill, do they give up? No, they would starve if they did. Instead, they process the clicks (the information) and use bits and pieces to improve the hunt and try something new next time. No two hunts are ever the same, because the pack is constantly learning. And they aren’t learning because the alpha wolf comes over and beats up on them. They are learning by processing information. They are, essentially, learning by clicker training, and the learning process helps them to earn the reward that they both want and need.
Now, how do I know this to be true, you ask? Is it because I went to a fancy college and therefore am better and smarter than anyone else? Nope. It’s because I’ve read dozens of books and essays by people who have devoted their lives to the research and who are smarter than I am. But it’s also because I’ve seen it work with my own two eyes.
You certainly don’t have to have a college or even a high school degree to clicker train. Children as young as five can clicker train. It’s highly encouraged, by me and by many others. As a matter of fact, Karen Pryor, one of the most highly respected clicker trainers, and also one of the first, had no scientific background at all when she began her work (except a few science classes in college). She was, in fact, an English major (like me) and had one dog and one pony when she began formulating what would become her clicker training methods for dolphins. She saw that what she was doing was working and other people saw that it was working and everyone wanted to know why, so more science and research followed.
But you don’t even need to know the science part to make clicker training work (though it is interesting). All you need to know is how to push a button and hand out treats. Pretty simple right? Yeah, I think so too. And most of the time, the simplest answer tends to be the right one.