Clicker Training the Rescue Dog

Clicker training, as we have said, exploits the laws of learning very explicitly and intelligently, and is a formidably powerful training technique.  The clicker is also an extremely effective conditioned positive reinforcer for dogs:

  • it produces a sound which is dissimilar to most other sounds in the dog’s environment  
  • it produces the same sound every time
  • it produces a sound which is clearly audible to the dog at quite a distance
  • it is quick and easy to operate, and thus very accurate (a reflex click will come out a lot faster than ‘good boy’ will)

Furthermore, there is some evidence from research into neurophysiology that the sound of the clicker (a sharp, mechanical click-click) is precisely the type of stimulus which bypasses the cortex (the thinking part of the brain) and goes directly to the limbic system (the emotional part of the brain), so it becomes a much more powerful conditioned reinforcer than a spoken word does.

So with almost all dogs, conditioning the clicker works so well and so fast that it rarely occurs to anybody to wonder if the conditioning has failed.

And furthermore, trainers are exactly that: trainers.  They are usually people with very good timing and observation skills and a good general grasp of operant conditioning theory, and are very capable  at teaching the practical skills of clicker training, but they are not necessarily skilled at diagnosing psychological problems in dogs, and are probably not familiar with the minutiae of behavioural theory.  Nor do they need to be.  It’s not their job, although there is a lot of overlap between the roles of trainer and behaviourist.

The net result is that practically-oriented clicker trainers tend to develop a profound and superstitious faith in the power of the clicker, which is, after all, just a little plastic and metal gadget!  Somehow, just hearing the click is supposed to magically turn any dog into a model of trainability, and the notion that the sound of the click might be meaningless, or even worse, actually unpleasant to the dog, is virutally seen as heresy!

I have actually overheard a trainer tell an owner who had a dog much like Annie to insist that the dog produce the desired behaviours, even if it meant forcing them, and to keep on clicking and tossing treats at the dog, whether it wanted them or not.  She apparently saw a lack of responsiveness to the click as some sort of wilful disobedience on the dog’s part!  Dogs ought to like clicker training, and if they don’t they’re just being bad!

I can only repeat, and keep on repeating: there is nothing magic about the clicker.  There is nothing magic about the sound it makes.  It’s just a little plastic and metal gadget.  What gives it its power is its meaning to the dog, and nothing else.  To give the clicker meaning to the dog, it must be paired with something else, and only the dog gets to decide whether the something else is pleasurable or horrible.  As a very wise dog handler once said, we have all the opinions, but the dog has all the facts.

Back to Annie

After half a dozen increasingly frustrating lessons, the trainer told Nigel that she thought Annie was abnormal in some way, as she had never seen a response like this before.  She said she thought it would be better if he stopped coming to classes, and took Annie to the vet.

The vet couldn’t find anything physically wrong with Annie, except that she was getting a little fat, so he recommended a clinical behaviourist called Sue.

Sue went to visit Nigel and Annie, listened to the whole saga, took out a clicker, and while watching Annie carefully, clicked once.  Annie flinched.

So the next step was, unfortunately, a funeral.

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