To click or not to click

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

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“Hi Sam, I am fostering a dog with severe aggression. I have had someone suggest for me to use the clicker training  method since it is non-invasive. But then I hear you’re the guy to go to for aggression, so I was wondering what your thoughts were on clicker training.”

I get this question a lot from people, and they wonder what my thoughts are on clicker training and why the “Whelping Box Theory” doesn’t include it.

To answer your question directly, I choose not to use the clicker. The clicker is not a tool of negativity (its polar opposite being the prong collar.) On the surface, the clicker does not harm the dog in any way, demean it, or inflict any form of submission or pain which results in breaking of a dog’s self-esteem.

Training with a clicker

However, I don't find the clicker a tool of relevance on the master's behalf. When I train a dog and bond with it, my body, mind, and spirit IS the clicker, which is also a form of “operant conditioning,” if you think about it. The relationships I have with my dogs are very deep because of it, and that is what I teach my students to achieve.

In conversations I’ve had with clicker enthusiasts, they present the fact that as humans, we cannot control our frustrations and that can be relayed to the dog while training. This is very true. Be that as it may, a good portion of my “Whelping Box Technique” teaches my students how to be calm and in control of themselves. I feel absolutely certain that this can be accomplished (and is a good skill to perpetuate throughout many areas of your life, i.e. work, friendships, parenting, etc.)

In reality, you can still be huffing and puffing, with your heartbeat racing, while using a clicker. The dog can still sense that (since their senses are superior to humans), and from my experience, it is most definitely noticed by a dog suffering from aggression (a dog whose senses are heightened even further given the state of anxiety and nervousness it is experiencing.)

Before I begin to explain in detail why this is my opinion of the clicker, I will reiterate an experience I had with a clicker a few years ago. It was a board meeting that was arranged at a local shelter here in Toronto. In this meeting the topic discussed were: how to improve adoptability; how to help people avoid having to surrender their dog; and what programs I had to offer. Of course there were the governing bodies present, inclusive of the resident trainer who believed in the clicker method. As any person would do preparing for a meeting involved, and knowing who was going to be in attendance, I decided to acquire a clicker and bring it with me.

The concept of the clicker is to, for example, ask the dog to sit, and the moment the dog’s behind touches the floor, you click and give the dog a treat. In the progression of the technique, the dog will associate the sound of the clicker with a positive feeling, therefore notifying the dog that it is doing something correct and desirable.

I was asked to demonstrate my dogs. Those who have seen them are aware that they are completely focused, calm and obedient regardless of interfering activity or stimuli. I can do my thing and not have to worry about commanding my dogs to behave. In fact, I very seldom speak directly to them or utter any obedience commands. The board members were rather impressed and were quite interested in incorporating my method with a program in their facility. The trainer did not ask how this was achieved. Instead she felt that she needed to overemphasize her work. I have come across this many times, and that’s fine, to each his own I guess.

She was not aware that I had a clicker in my pocket, as well as several one dollar coins. While I was discussing my method and format to the group, I noticed her talking to others while I spoke. At that point I decided to stand next to her and every time she did not look or pay attention, I used the clicker and gave her the coin. Of course she looked at me and was shocked. One of the board members, who is a friend of mine, said to me “Sam, if you use that clicker again the meeting will end.” I politely said, “I rest my case.”

I am not against a clicker, in fact I would use it before I would consider prong collars, illusion collars, Gentle Leaders (“Subtle Demeanors”), spitting down treats, or using peanut butter or cheese whiz on a stick. I would only use it if I couldn't speak, use my hands, or move my body and/or my eyes. Then to me it is acceptable at this point.

Put yourself into the dog world. If a mother dog gets unconditional focus, whether a puppy is 6 weeks or a young adult, and she doesn't go “click click click,” then why do you have to? After all, she uses herself to epitomize her relevance, and when one understands how to be relevant according to their subject, then one will be admired and followed naturally.

If we understand our canine companions, know each and every drive they are made up of and use them according to how they see, feel and think, then we have put ourselves into their world. If you have put yourself into their world, then you have become one of them, and who better to communicate with than someone who has a commonality to you! I can bet that the conversation would last a long time and we would be truly eager and focused when this person showed up.

I am not knocking the clicker, I guess it does a decent job of getting a dog to learn and preform a task. To me decent is not enough, and I would rather have an indestructible relationship with the dogs I own. In the world of dogs, our four-legged friends rely on who we are, and we must represent ourselves accordingly. This is tremendously important to dogs who have behavioral trouble. If I have to make funny sounds to get attention then what relevance do I really have? My obligation to my dogs and those around me is simple: if I carry myself with understanding and compassion, then I will have the relevance of importance.

If we need to use objects to gain control, we are seeking others to compensate us for our own lack of self relevance.

- Sam

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