How to Deal with a Dog Scared of the Clicker
Your Clicker: Best Friend or Worst Enemy?
Dealing with a dog scared of the clicker requires a specific approach. We know many dogs who love clicker training and the internet is filled with dogs learning many cool tricks this way, but what about those dogs who appear to be scared of the clicker?
It may sound odd, but as a trainer, I occasionally stumble on a dog who cowers the moment he hears the sound of the clicker. Fortunately, when I catch these issues early, I can take several steps to intervene and determine whether I can use some tricks to make the clicker sound less scary or I might just skip using the clicker altogether.
Fortunately, there are several things that can be done to help a dog scared of the clicker, but first let's take a look at some possible reasons why some dogs may be scared of clickers, shall we?
A Lesson in Classical Conditioning
We know most dogs love clicker training, but what about those dogs who appear to be scared of the clicker? These dogs need a customized approach in order to reap the benefits of marker training (that is training that aims to mark behaviors that are worthy of reinforcement).
In training school, we are taught that clicker training is a training method based on the scientific principles of classical conditioning, and as such, once implemented correctly, dogs should respond enthusiastically because they have associated the noise of the clicker with a reward, so what happens with dogs scared of the clicker?
Let's take a closer look at what goes on in dogs who seem to love the clicker and dogs who seem to dread it.
If you ever studied Pavlov's dogs in school, you will remember how this Russian physiologist who was studying digestive processes stumbled on a curious dynamic while he was conducting experiments on dogs by observing their digestive glands and their response to food.
Basically, a bell was sounded several times during the day and food was presented to the dogs right afterward. After several times of doing this, Pavlov noticed a curious event: the dogs started salivating just at the sound of the bell!
What happened is that initially the sound of the bell was something the dogs never really cared about, and as such, did not produce a response (neutral stimulus), but after learning that the sound was paired with food, the sound became a conditioned stimulus and triggered drooling which was called a conditioned response.
Soon, Pavlov noticed that he could replicate the conditioned response by exposing the dogs to other neutral stimuli by pairing them with food as well. Soon, the neutral stimulus became a conditioned stimulus that generated a conditioned response, so the dogs were now drooling upon hearing different sounds and even after seeing the white lab coats of scientists!
Pavlov was so thrilled after making this great discovery that he decided to devote the rest of his career studying this type of learning rather than digestive processes.
Clicker Training Should Be About Positive Associations!
Back to clicker training, when we pair a clicker with food, we aim to see the same Pavlovian effects. The clicker at first is something the dog cares less about (neutral stimulus); indeed, after all, dogs have lived and thrived all their lives without seeing or hearing a clicker, but wait till you pair its clicking noise with food, (a process known as "loading the clicker" or "charging the clicker.)" At that point, wonderful things happen once it becomes a positive conditioned stimulus.
Repetition after repetition, you will see a conditioned response. Your dog may drool at the sound of the clicker, smack his lips and he'll start looking for the food. You may even see a tail wag and your dog's eyes brightening up! Dogs who are clicker trained therefore look forward to being trained because they have associated the clicking sound with many great goodies, sort of like a child a child hearing the bell of an ice-cream truck.
However, this kind of response isn't always the norm. And this is why you really cannot use a cookie-cutter approach to train all dogs. Dogs are all individuals.
The Clicker Noise it Too Loud and Aversive
As mentioned, for some dogs, the clicker is likely NOT a neutral stimulus. Instead, to these sensitive dogs the noise is aversive, meaning they find it scary and intimidating.
Unlike the average dog who initially cares less about the clicking sound and then starts loving it upon learning about all the positive associations, these dogs will pay attention to the noise; but not because it's intriguing, but because they are terrified of it and dread the thought of you making it again! Some dogs will even cower and run to hide!
So why are some dogs scared of the clicker, while others are not? This is an interesting question, and there may be several explanations.
Dog Scared of the Clicker?
Why are Some Dogs Scared of the Clicker?
Often such dogs are dogs who are noise-sensitive or over all anxious and fearful. It could be similar noises may have startled them in the past such as being exposed to a shock collar or electronic fence.
Perhaps some dogs may have never heard anything similar to that noise in their lives, so their response is the natural response you typically see in dogs who are neophobic, meaning scared of new things and/or scared of the unknown.
Perhaps your dog has been sensitized to certain noises so that the clicker noise isn't as neutral as thought, instead the dog finds it similar to other noises heard in the past that may have been potentially paired with negative experiences.
For example, a dog that was corrected in the past by using frightening sounds (think coins shaken in a jar or as mentioned the use of shock collars) and therefore may startle at similar noises due to these past negative experiences.
Sometimes, dogs may be seem fine with the clicker, only to start fearing it later on. Perhaps you are using the clicker too close to your dog's ears, or perhaps the room you are training in is causing an echo. So always be on the lookout for signs of startling and fear.
Did you know? Recent studies have found that dogs who suffer from separation anxiety are also likely to suffer from noise phobias. Something to keep into account!
Generalizing The Fear
Did you know? When a dog becomes fearful of a certain stimulus, such as a scary sound, there is a potential for anything occurring at the time of the sound to become associated with that sound, just as Pavlov's dogs started associating the sound of the bell with food, and then even the sight of the scientist's lab coats! In behavior terms, this is known as "generalization."
So in a dog fearful of a clicker it is possible that the fear of the click may expand to a fear of the room where he was trained, a fear of whatever he was doing (performing a sit, down etc), a fear of who he was training with (the owner being there) and fear of other stimuli such as seeing a treat bag, having a person standing in front of them, etc.
So if you think your dog may be afraid of the clicker because he's particularly fearful or noise sensitive or if you notice your dog is startling at the clicking sound, stop using the clicker and read on to find some other options you may have.
Tips for Helping Dogs Scared of the Clicker Sound
So you are stuck with a dog just midly fearful of the clicker sound, now what? In such a case, we can sometimes borrow some behavior modification techniques to create new pleasant associations, but it is best if you do so with the help of a dog trainer or behavior professional.
I sometimes treat clicker sensitivity as other situations where certain stimuli have assumed negative connotations. If your dog is fearful of noises in general, you will find that you may succeed by using my "hear that" behavior modification method used under the guidance of a dog behavior professional.
Back to clicker training, in order to succeed, we may therefore use desensitization and counterconditioning to our advantage. This may be more advice for professional trainers or very mild cases of fear (skip these methods and go straight to a verbal marker if your dog is stressed by noises to the point he can't focus or if you aren't much familiar with how behavior modification works).
In desensitization, we are exposing dogs gradually and systematically to stimuli they have found scary in the past. If you are scared of spiders, you'll likely do much better if I show you pictures of spiders at first versus letting you have one crawl in your hand from the get-go. So to make the noise of the clicker less scary, I will need to find ways to make its sound less intense.
In addition, I will start pairing the noise with high-value treats so to create positive associations, a process known as counterconditioning.
Too Loud? How to Quiet a Dog Clicker
There are several strategies to quiet a dog clicker. A good one is by simply placing the clicker in a pocket. The pocket will help muffle the sound and make it less intimidating towards sensitive dogs.
At a first glance, it may appear like I am just engaging in plain and simple classical conditioning--which is what happens with a dog who doesn't fear the clicker sound, but since we are working on changing the emotional response in a dog that perceives the stimulus as somewhat negative, more precisely, this process falls under counterconditioning along with desensitization.
The end result of all this is that, as the dog gets to learn that the click brings lip- smacking rewards, he will feel less intimidated and will eventually happily accept its noise.
Another method consists of putting some layers of tape on the clicker again to muffle the sound. Again, the keyword is going gradually, therefore as the dog learns that the click brings marvelous treats, I will start peeling off a layer of tape so to allow the dog to get step-by- step used to the clicking sound.
Alternatives to Clickers
Don't want to use a clicker? Let me share some tricks of the trade. Here's a big secret: you don't have to necessarily use a clicker. Truth is, you can start using other tools that make similar sounds to a clicker, but are less loud. For instance, a retractable pen that clicks may be good enough, for starters.
If your dog is severely noise-phobic or you just want to play it safe, you can even use a flash of light, which is what is used when clicker training deaf dogs. But perhaps, there's even a better option that's easier to use, as outlined below.
Play if Safe and Use a Verbal Marker!
If your dog is noise sensitive, it might be best to try avoiding as much as possible any noises that may elicit a fear response, and stick to just words, so play it safe and use a verbal marker.
If your dog shows signs of generalized fear, try to train in a different place from where you first used the clicker that startled him, ask for a different exercise and maybe sit on the couch rather than stand in front of your dog if that was the posture you were in when clicker training.
You can now use a verbal marker such as "yes" in lieu of the clicking sound. Charge it in the same way you would with a clicker, say 'yes!' and toss a treat, "yes!" and toss a treat, until you notice your dog makes the association. Then, you can use it to mark desired behaviors. So your dog performs the desired behavior? Mark it with a "yes" followed by a treat.
There is debate over whether verbal markers yield results compared to the sound of a clicker. Although there were studies done, there are too many variables and conflicting info to consider to come to reliable conclusions.
Some studies suggest that animals trained with a clicker learn nearly twice as fast and then studies suggesting both can yield equal results. Sounds like more research needs done! In the meanwhile, have fun training your dog!
Clicker training is a rewarding training method and it really helps dogs gain confidence in themselves and become eager to learn. Being sensitive to noises does not have to be translated into depriving these dogs from such a positive training method.
With the strategies mentioned above, or the use of just a verbal marker, your dog will eventually learn to love clicker training (which, without a clicker, can be referred to simply as marker training) and will eagerly look forward to your next training session. Happy training!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli