To Click or Not to Click that is the question!
Clicker training, where do we begin? Lets start with some truths. When I was a young handler in the Air Force, I admit I was a little over confident. I still to this day feel the AF K9 School was the best school I've ever been to. They do an amazing job of teaching handling from the ground up. So that is where I got the confidence.
Back then we did things with just a choke, flat collar (transition), reward and a lead. That's it. So when I would go into big name pet stores teaching obedience with clickers and treats I would make comments to my soon to be wife like, "Awwww that's cute" or "Look how adorable."
Fast forward a bit and I began to dive deep into marker training because I always want to learn more about dog training. I also had a dog with a specific need in positive reinforcement. More specifically clicker markers.
So what is a marker exactly?
A marker is a device we use to tie in a wanted behavior with the reward being given. Clickers are the most common marker. After using the clicker rep after rep, the dog will associate the clicker with a reward for wanted behavior. For example, if you want to teach the dog to sit, you use the word "sit" assist them into position, mark the final position with the marker and give the reward. After some repetitions, the dog will associate the word sit with putting their but on the floor to get the marker and reward.
I have recently seen a trend in trainers being opposed to clickers or markers. I got news for you, they still use markers and do not even realize it. These trainers are no different than trainers using clickers. They are using the word "Yes." It is no different than the clicker, just a word instead of a sound with one flaw that I see.
Like I said earlier, I was against clickers. That is all I need is something else to carry. Then I realized I was already using a marker like "Yes." So I began to use the clicker and my world was turned upside down. I'm not saying you shouldn't use yes. You have to handle your dog or train dogs the way you want. My argument is the clicker is superior, and for a very simple reason. Consistency.
We teach so much about Pavlov's Theory and classical theory but bypass the main thing. The bell. A consistent sound that was used over and over to get the dog to drool. The clicker is the bell! A consistent sound to signify payment time.
While a word like yes is perfectly fine, my argument is that it will never be consistent. The clicker is, just like the bell. If we still teach Pavlov's Theory which he worked on in 1890 (let that sink in), then why are we changing it for convenience?
I feel there are too many factors involved in the 'yes' marker. Voice infliction due to many factors such as fatigue. Drawing out the Yes or YESSSSS or Yess sounds different every time. Mainly, shocker here, it's you. Ever have a dog sit there and look back at you over and over instead of focusing on the source? One of the problems (not all) is they are waiting for you to say yes and pay them. Yes, I am aware there are other factors for this, but you can not deny that you being the marker is a factor.
I love watching the "pay at source" videos. If you think your dog does not know you have the reward, well, we can talk. Pay at source has its place and in the future I will talk about odor work. My argument is why fight the dog and not use a marker specifically for odor work? My theory is you get nothing until you hear the click, which comes when you are doing the task, sitting and staring at source. Like I said I will talk about odor in the future.
Once I began using the clicker instead of yes, I saw wild improvements. The focus at source was intense. Obedience was better. I also did not have to hide my reward. I eliminated the payment timing issues as I did not care that they broke and came back which is another part of the marker training.
I then started using it with EVERYTHING. Obedience, article searches, and tracking. The results were awesome. I can hit a clicker right now and all of my dogs would come flying over to me thinking they did something to get a reward. Why not harness that? We have a bad habit of this.
Another great thing about the clicker is simply timing. When you are the one who provides the marker in the verbal sense that's it. It is now on your shoulders. You have to see the final and give the marker on time (obviously if you are doing something extended it is not an issue). With a clicker, a trainer or observer can give the marker with you not even looking and boom payment from you. I like that. For me, it helps promote distance in off lead searches as well as helps to eliminate the looking back issues during odor work.
So what are the arguments against them? Well, really the main one I used to hear and used myself, was it's one more thing I have to carry. Really? You'll carry three sets of handcuffs but not a clicker? You'll carry a tug, AND a Kong or ball but not a clicker? You'll carry a tug, treat pouch and poop bags, but no clicker? You get the point, and I call BS. Like I said in the beginning, I was there. Why on earth would I want to use or carry a clicker?
There is also the argument of its just too much to deal with. You may be right. All of us had to learn how to manipulate a lead at first too and it seemed overwhelming, but you pushed through. Just like anything else it takes practice.
For me the benefits of it far out weighed my desire to be the cool handler or trainer. I bought a cheap S-clip and put it on my gear then clipped in the clicker, now its always on me and available. Small addition, big benefits.
Another thing I have noticed as of late are trainers who are misinterpreting terms used by trainers who use the clicker. The main term is, "Loading the marker." I heard a trainer saying something to the effect of how do you load the marker if they do not know what they are doing.
Here we go. A trainer who says load the marker is indicating that they have already laid the ground work for marker training. I have my clients stand in front of their dog with their high value treat or reward and simply click and pay. This is done before we even get to training. I usually have them do it before our first session. Over and over. Click, reward. Why? Again, Pavlov. He rang a bell and gave the dogs food. Its that simple. Like I said, I can use a clicker right now and my dogs would come running over for a reward.
Once the dog learns that click means treat, they will say, "Oh wait, mom/dad said xyz and when I did xyz that noise thing went off and I got that awesome treat. Loading the marker is simply doing a quick couple reps of click pay to get their mind right for what they are about to learn. No different then teasing up at the door. You are putting your dog into a drive.
I'm always trying to find better ways to train. It is what we should be doing not only as handlers, but as trainers. For those of us who have been working with dogs know how much has changed in the world of dog training. For me clickers have become a main stay in my equipment and I hope you will see the benefits as well.
Train hard brothers and sisters and stay safe! Have fun, and be patient.
K9 Leads the Way!