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February 21, 2017
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February 21, 2017

Do I believe in clickers?

A trainer wrote to ask: "I heard over the weekend that Suzanne? doesn't approve of or subscribe to clicker use. ls this true? What does she think of clicker training and does she subscribe to the?belief that operant conditioning is the most effective way to teach a dog? what you'd like them to know (or not)."

Here's my answer:

Not sure from whom you heard that I "don't approve of or subscribe to clicker use." As anyone who has attended any seminar of mine can attest, I put clickers in the category of a training tool, and one that can be effective. I do not "subscribe" to clicker training as a religion or a lifestyle, or a "must use" tool, however. I often find that a clicker is an unnecessary layer at times. When a clicker is the right tool, I use it. At other times, I use more natural markers, preferring not to be equipment dependent to the greatest degree possible. ?

I couldn't begin to count the number of people I've introduced to clicker training, or how many clicker training books/videos I've recommended. It's kind of amusing to me to be accused of not "approving" of clickers.?? I love teaching people to look for the positive to be rewarded, not waiting for a mistake to be punished. Shifting a handler to using a clicker can help improve their timing, observation skills and become more positive. I can also shift a handler to that same approach without a clicker.

I do want people to learn to communicate naturally and fluently and with considerable nuance in those communications, something that is not possible with the pure binary yes/no information of clickers. A clicker is a particularly isolated, nuanced bit of information. At times, that precise bit of information is ideal.?? At other times, it can be robotic, and lacking the richness of a more natural communication in which breathing, posture, muscle tension, breathing, orientation, facial expression, movement and voice can tell a dog so very much. You know, the way that other dogs communicate YES, NO and all other points on the spectrum. Dogs mark with their whole beings, in the context of a relationship. I like that model.

Operant conditioning is an effective model. For me, it is not the whole picture however. Try though the OC purists might, life doesn't neatly fit into 4 quadrants, at least in my experience. I find it a bit stultifying to try to categorize communication, interactions and relationships in 4 quadrants.?

Do I use operant conditioning? Of course. Here's an anecdote from a teaching trip to New Zealand a few years ago. I had an Australian Cattle Dog on stage with his owner, who was telling me a very, very detailed (!) history of the dog. The dog was a bit bored, and looking around for something to do. Since he had a ball, he dropped it at my foot. I gently tapped it so it rolled a few inches, and he was delighted. We did that a few times, so I thought, "Well, let's up the criteria."

Changed the criteria a bit, and within just a few minutes, had the dog backing the length of the entire stage before I kicked the ball to him. Short of teaching him to go backwards down the stage steps, I was out of easy options at the moment. So we stayed at that level of "back across the whole stage and I'll kick your ball" agreement. It was a piece of cake, and simply a way to keep myself and the dog entertained while his owner talked. ?

Mind you, not a word said, no clicker utilized, just the pure "marker" of my foot kicking that ball to him.? A few minutes later, someone in the audience asked pretty much the ?same questions you are asking, "Do you believe in clickers? Do you ever use operant conditioning?"?

I was dumbfounded. First, of course I believe in clickers. I've seen them, used them, and know they are real. It's not like the Easter Bunny or fairies or Santa Claus! Second, of course I use operant conditioning. Everyone in the audience had been able to see exactly what I'd been doing with the dog. I asked what the questioner thought I had just been doing, if not using a marker and engaging in operant conditioning? The answer made my head spin, "Oh, but you didn't have a ?clicker and you didn't use any cookies!" It was a very funny moment.?

Long before operant conditioning was codified, the give & take of relationships and interactions existed in all the nuance or crudeness possible. Whether teaching wild seagulls to hover just so above me for a French fry, or thin slicing a task for a scared dog, I'm interested in nuanced, successful, enjoyable interactions. If a clicker helps that, yippee! If I can achieve it in a more fluid, natural way, better still.? That is my goal: fluid, dynamic, natural interactions. Humans have been doing it that way with animals for thousands of years.

Your mileage may vary?

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"Do I believe in clickers?" by Suzanne Clothier

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