How to Deal with a Dog Scared of the Clicker
Some clicker-trained tricks...
Clicker Training Fearful Dogs May Take a Different Approach
We know most dogs love clicker training, 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. We are taught in training school 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 gives? 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 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, Pavlolv noticed that 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 stimuli became conditioned stimuli 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! So Pavlov was so thrilled after making this great discovery that he decided to devote the rest of his career studying this type of learning.
Back to clicker training, when we pair a clicker with food, we 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 their use, but wait till you pair the noise with food, a process trainers call "loading the clicker or charging the clicker" and then all sorts of wonderful things happen when it becomes a 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.
However, this isn't always the norm. And this is why you really cannot use a cookie-cutter approach to train all dogs. As mentioned, for some dogs, the clicker is likely NOT a neutral stimulus. Their response to the sound of the clicker is not the typical, "who cares about it, I have no interest whatsoever in that noise, why are you even clicking that thing, to me it's the equivalent of the birds chirping and crickets singing." Instead, to these sensitive dogs the noise is aversive, meaning they find it scary and intimidating. Unlike the average dog who cares less, 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!
I have found that there are two possible explanations for their behaviors. 1) The 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, or, 2) Notice how in the above paragraphs I mentioned how likely the clicker sound isn't a neutral stimulus. There's a reason why I used the tentative word "likely." I believe that in some cases, 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 may startle at similar noises due to these past negative experiences.
Whatever the cause of the fear of the clicking noise (we may really never know as dogs are spared from the gift of talking), we know that we may be stuck with a problem if our goal is to clicker train. Should we give up clicker training altogether and not reap the rewards associated with this training technique? Noooooo.. fortunately, there are several options for you. We will see them in the next paragraphs.
Tips for Helping Dogs Scared of the Clicker Sound
So you are stuck with a dog fearful of the clicker sound, now what? In such a case, we can borrow some behavior modification techniques to create new pleasant associations. I 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. Back to clicker training, in order to succeed, we may use desensitization and counterconditioning to our advantage. Following are some tips.
Using Desensitization and Counterconditioning for Dogs Scared of the Clicker
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 fro 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.
A good way to do this is by simply placing the clicker in a pocket. The pocket will help muffle the sound and make it less intimidating towards sensitive dogs. In addition, I will start pairing the noise with high-vale treats so to create positive associations, a process known as counterconditioning. 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 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 key word 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.
Don't want to use a clicker? Let me share some tricks of the trade. 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 several noise phobic, you can even use a flash of light, which is what is used when clicker training deaf dogs.
And what about just using words? What makes clicker training particularly effective is that noises work better in shaping behaviors than voice alone since the variability of the human voice may send differing messages. So you are better off making some sound with your mouth rather than saying something.
Once your dog accepts the noise and the clicker is charged, you can shift to operant conditioning by using the clicker noise to mark wanted behaviors and rewarding accordingly. With the power of positive reinforcement on your side, your dog will soon be on his way to learning new behaviors and repeating them as they're so rewarding.
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 your dog will eventually learn to love clicker training and will eagerly look forward to your next training session. Happy clicker training!
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