Clicker Training the Rescue Dog

Is Pete right after all? Is clicker training just a gimmick which only works on ‘some’ dogs?  Should Nigel have been using traditional choke collar training?

No. Clicker training is as powerful as it is because it explicitly and intelligently exploits the laws of learning, which, as Murray Sidman puts it, are like the weather: neither good nor bad, neither wrong nor right, just there.  And the most probable explanation for what happened is that Annie obeyed the laws of learning, minutely and precisely, but nobody noticed.

Perhaps it’s time to find out what Annie thought of the episode.

Annie’s version of events

First, let me say that I’m extremely grateful to Nigel for taking me in and giving me a loving home.  He’s changed my whole life and he is the only human being I trust.

But he put me through something horrible a few days ago, and I have no idea why.

He took me off to this place where there were lots of strange people and dogs standing around, so I got really frightened.  Then this woman who reminded me of Jemma, my previous person, kept talking and waving her arms around, and I was sure she was going to hit me or do something awful to me.

I was scared.  My tail went down, my ears went back, I started panting, and I huddled as close as I could get to Nigel, hoping he would realise I was frightened and take me home, but he didn’t seem to notice.

Then it got worse!  I heard a funny clicking noise and then Nigel stuck his hand in my face!  How could he do that?  I thought he would hit me.  I got so scared, and my stomach felt funny.

Then I realised he was holding something.  It sort of smelled like food, but not like anything I’ve ever tasted. I sniffed it, but I didn’t like it much, and I was scared that if I took it he would hurt me like Jemma used to.  And anyway, I was still a bit full from my lunch.

And then he kept on doing it!  I heard the little noise and then he shoved his hand in my face again!  Then he shoved some of the awful fire stuff in my mouth!  It’s called ‘shikin’ or something.  Jemma used to give it to me and it tasted nice, but then one day it set my whole mouth on fire!  It didn’t set my mouth on fire when Nigel shoved it at me, but I’ll never forget that awful fiery feeling.

And then he shoved his hand at me with some more stuff and kept it there and moved it around near my head!  I was sure he was going to pinch my ear, and that huuuuurts!!

And then another lady took my lead and started shoving her hand in my face!  And I kept hearing that little noise!  And then another lady took me away from Nigel, and she stuck her hand in my face too!  I tried to get back to Nigel but she wouldn’t let me!

Oh, it was horrible, and it just went on and on and on.  I hope we never, ever go back there.


Clearly, Annie’s first lesson did not have the anticipated effect, but we’re now in a better position to diagnose what went wrong.

Before looking at Annie’s case, we made this observation: the sound of the clicker begins to predict the arrival of a food treat, and if the arrival of the food treat is pleasurable to the dog, the clicker becomes conditioned as a conditioned positive reinforcer, and starts triggering a pleasure response in the dog in its own right, which is why the technique is so powerful.

The problem with Annie was that she found the arrival of the food treat frightening and unpleasant.  There were several things that upset her about it:

  • she found the general environment in the class stressful, which suppressed her appetite and made it difficult for her to learn (how much food fantasising do you do when you’re nervous about a big exam or being hauled over the coals by the boss?)
  • her stomach was fairly full from an earlier meal, so she was partially sated and not particularly interested in food at that moment
  • some of the treats Nigel had brought along were unfamiliar and not particularly palatable to her
  • one of them, the chicken, was strongly associated with an unpleasant experience of eating a painfully hot chili
  • most distressingly, the presentation of food in the hand was strongly associated with previous ill-treatment and triggered her old approach/avoidance conflict with its emotions of severe anxiety, which she resolved by displacing (turning her head away and pretending that it wasn’t happening).

And all this misery was preceded by a little clicking noise…….

Ooooops!!

The clicker had not been conditioned as a signal predicting the arrival of something pleasurable, i.e. a conditioned positive reinforcer.

It had been conditioned as a signal predicting the arrival of something unpleasant, i.e. a conditioned positive punisher.

So after that, anything that Annie did that resulted in a click was likely to frighten and upset her, and reduce the chances of her performing that particular behaviour again.  Meanwhile, Nigel and the trainer, oblivious to Annie’s fear, were happily continuing to click for the few things they saw that they liked (like the occasional sit), and thereby demolishing her few shreds of obedience.  Clicker Untraining, perhaps?

Well, you have to admit that it has its funny side…….

Why didn’t anybody notice, though?

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