I am a big fan of clicker training, and I believe it is a very useful tool. However I don’t consider it the only – or even primary way to train a dog. Here’s why.
Clicker training – as I define it – does not require a clicker. For me, it refers to a METHOD of training – of using of a marker/bridge signal to communicate with the dog in a very accurate and precisely timed way, rather than the use of a clicker.
Using a clicker can hone your timing skills and accuracy at pinpointing the behaviour you want to mark. It is also – at least initially -neutral – in that it is devoid of any additional information you may give with a verbal signal (notwithstanding the theory regarding the effect of the click sound on the amygdala). It is very good as a prompt for trainer and dog that they are in ‘training mode’ – whether the trainer is using it as part of shaping or luring, this is a safe, familiar zone for both of them where the dog can experiment and try things out without fear. It has an immediacy and consistency that is useful for many training activities, and other advantages, one of which I will mention later.
“Unlike mechanical bridges or markers, voice and hand signals are charged with human emotional expressiveness—content and meaning that provide significant and valuable secondary bonding and socialisation effects. Expressive affectionate talk and gestures help the trainer to…connect with their dog through …empathetic appreciation. The melange of gross and subtle emotional expressions associated with human approval and disappointment, together with variations of touch, …all contribute to a dogs socialisation and development as a companion. In sum, socially significant and emotionally charged consequences facilitate a profound level of mutual awareness, exchange and bonding between people and dogs.”
(Steve Lindsay, Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training Vol 3, Ch 1, pp 38)
There is a place for the binary feedback (yes, not-yes) of the clicker, with limited use of emotion and additional feedback and cues, and this is particularly when we are having a ‘formal’ training session with our dog, teaching a new behaviour, and letting our dog explore thinking for itself. However once a behaviour is beginning to be learnt, there is a role for analogue feedback, using different levels of praise, encouragement, or a ‘keep going signal’, and differentially rewarding according to quality of final behaviour (Ian Dunbar has discussed the differences between binary and analogue feedback in his talks).
Verbal communication can be messy, imprecise and sometimes more confusing for the dog. But if your primary goal is not just to teach ‘a behaviour’ but to teach your dog how to communicate, understand and live with you – that messiness is all part of learning. Clicker training – whether done with a clicker or a set verbal marker that is delivered as neutrally as possible – can help your skills as a trainer. But it is an addendum, rather than a replacement for all the messy, imprecise human-canine communication that goes on in training in its wider interpretation – training to understand us, our moods and flaws and imprecision – and respond as our companions.
The other advantage of clicker training that I will mention, is that although it starts off neutral, through consistent pairing with the primary reinforcer it can become a powerful secondary reinforcer in its own right, and as such can help boost dog’s moods and help them to focus in situations where there are more distractions. This must be done carefully, so as not to ‘poison’ the positive association around using the clicker. If other distractions – such as dogs, people or the environment are too salient and the dog is excited or worried, then trying to use the clicker will either be an annoying distraction to the dog, or begin to be associated with stressful situations rather than fun times.
Using a clicker teaches important communication skills but in the end we must communicate with dogs in the most effective and appropriate way for the situation – sometimes binary, and sometimes good old analogue.