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Click, treat, disaster, the downsides of clicker training

Updated on June 2, 2010

Just look at his expression...

Where's the treat? Huh? Huh?
Where's the treat? Huh? Huh?

I shall preface this by saying that many people swear by clicker training. They believe that it garners excellent results with positive reinforcement. In many cases this is true, in some cases it is not. This articles is written from my own personal experiences and observations, and even though I am not a fan, it may work for you, or it may not, life is funny like that. In my experience if clicker training is done improperly, or simply done with a dog that is a little on the stubborn or wayward side, all you will end up with is a dog that looks around for a treat when he or she hears a click.

Clicker training is based on conditioning theory, that is the theory that the dog will learn to associate positive behaviors with positive rewards, and eventually simply perform the positive behaviors without even really thinking about it.

The theory is sound, but falls apart in practice in several places. For starters, clicker training is more times than not accompanied by treats which are used to reinforce the positive message. Small dogs often aren't that interested in treats compared to other stimuli like other dogs, people, or shadows on the wall.

To combat this, some trainers recommend making sure that your dog is hungry before training. This may help to focus your dog, however it is more likely than not to focus it on food, which isn't actually the point of the exercise. This is where you will get the 'dog looking for food' response, which, while demonstrating that Pavlov did indeed know what he was on about, doesn't help you very much when doggy dearest insists on lunging at other dogs playfully, running in the opposite direction when called, and seems to not quite understand what all this “sit” business is about.

Now, in theory, the treats are supposed to be weaned off slowly as the dog becomes more and more conditioned and starts to respond without the treat. I hate to say this, but many dogs just aren't that stupid. You've been bribing them with food to obey you, and once the treats are gone, well why shouldn't they rip up the couch? What's in it for them?

I have seen clicker training work very well with some dogs, like Border Collies, who oftentimes seem to come inbuilt with a people pleasing complex that would give a therapist spasms of excitement. Other types of dog (ie terriers) are often less worried about pleasing than they are about chasing. They're bred to give chase, and many professionals recommend that such breeds never be let off the leash in a place where they cannot be contained. You may however find that clicking your clicker spazzily as they run will help calm you a little, though there are better stress relief toys on the market.

As old fashioned as this is going to sound, life isn't always positive, and sometimes it doesn't hurt the dog to receive negative feedback for its actions, whether that is being put in another room, verbally reprimanded, or simply ignored. Your dog should obey because it wants to please you, not because you treated it like some kind of moron and tried to condition it with bits of chicken. Your dog is smarter than that, something you may not believe when it is trying to mount a cushion in the belief that it is really a hot female dog, but there you have it.

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