Five clicker training myths

Clicker training is fast becoming the method of choice when training a dog through positive means. But there are some widespread misunderstandings that could make it hard to know if it’s right for you and your dog. The following are five myths about clicker training, both negative and positive, as well as information you can use to decide if this is the best obedience training method for your needs.

1) The clicker is a fad or gimmick

The theories that make clicker training work are actually based on some of the principles of operant conditioning, which were first described in the 1930’s by B.F. Skinner. The basic idea is that a subject will repeat behaviors that are rewarding and avoid behaviors that are not. Skinner’s principles were used to train pigeons and marine mammals in the early 1940’s and were developed into the modern method of applied operant conditioning by Karen Pryor in the 1960’s. In 1987 she started teaching what is known today as clicker training.

Keep in mind that the actual clicker is only a tool. It’s the principles that are important.

2) You must always have the clicker with you

TThe use of a clicker or “marker” is only needed during the initial stages of clicker training a command. After a cue is introduced you no longer need the marker. (See What is dog clicker training for more information on the stages of clicker training an obedience command or trick.)

If you’re worried about having to carry a clicker, you can always use a different sound to mark behaviors such as clicking with your tongue or snapping your fingers. The clicker makes a unique sound that’s very effective, but it’s not a necessity so long as the principles of positive dog training are followed.

3) Clicker dogs won’t work without food

No one works for free, including your dog. Using food to motivate him is quick and simple, but the treats should be phased out in favor of real-world rewards once he understands a command. Examples include sitting to be let outside, lying down to great guests, or retrieving a leash to go for a walk. The more you know about your dog, the easier it will be to figure out what motivates him apart from food. You may find that a few seconds with a tennis ball is more rewarding for your dog than filet mignon. Be creative.

Also, keep in mind the difference between a reward and a bribe. A reward only comes after a behavior is offered while a bribe comes before the behavior. If you have to bribe your dog to get a behavior, then you need to rethink your training technique and adjust accordingly.

4) There is no punishment in clicker training

No one can train a dog using positive reinforcement alone. Some type of aversive is always present, including negative punishment. (This is where you take away something that your dog is willing to work for in order to lessen the frequency of a behavior.) Some clicker trainers use no-reward markers or NRM’s, which tell the dog that the behavior he offered isn’t going to be rewarded. Common NRM’s include the words “oops” or “too bad”.

The distinction between clicker training and more traditional methods of obedience training is that clicker training steers clear of methods that involve force, pain, or intimidation. And that’s a good thing for both you and your dog. See The Myth of Purely Positive for a more complete discussion.

5) Clicker training is the best way to train a dog

Every dog and trainer are different and what works for some may not work for others. It’s up to you to decide which obedience training methods will be most effective for you and your dog. But, if you can train your dog using a technique that doesn’t require force, fear, or intimidation, isn’t it worth trying?