Clicker Training “Don’ts”

Yesterday on the Dogster Guide to Behavior and Training we discussed a few "Do's" of clicker training. As promised, here are some clicker training "Don'ts",...


Yesterday on the Dogster Guide to Behavior and Training we discussed a few “Do’s” of clicker training. As promised, here are some clicker training “Don’ts”, I hope you find them helpful!

DON’T click right next to your dog’s ears, even if they’re normally tolerant of loud sounds.

DON’T use the clicker to get your dog’s attention. Remember the clicker signifies two things to a dog, “yes, I like that behavior. Do it more often.” and “that behavior has earned you reinforcement.” The clicker is not a tool used to manufacture attention or behavior in dogs, it is a tool where you capture those behaviors when they are offered and follow them with reinforcement. A clicker is not a recall signal, a cue to give attention, or anything of the sort. A clicker is simply a cue that reinforcement is available for whatever behavior the dog was doing as you clicked.

DON’T use your clicker like a video game controller, waving it around in the air, pointing it at your dog, etc.

DON’T have food on your body all the time. Food in your hand or the appearance of a treat bag may become part of the cue if you do not also practice with food off your body.

DON’T beat yourself up if your skills are lacking at first. It can feel very clumsy to learn the mechanics of clicker training, juggling a leash, clicker, treats, and one untrained dog. This skill will come with time. Your trainer should be able to suggest a variety of exercises which will help you improve your timing and coordination.

DON’T be wishy-washy with your criteria. When you are first capturing “sit,” you may take any version of a sit. As your dog learns the behavior, it’s time to start beefing up the criteria. You may decide that since your dog on average responds within three seconds of the cue, you will no longer click or reinforce sits that are slower than that. Know what you are going to click (and just as importantly, what you are not going to click!), at the start of each session.

DON’T allow your dog to rehearse making mistakes. If he makes two or more “mistakes” in a row, reevaluate your training plan. Have you raised your criteria too quickly? Is something about your cue confusing to the dog? Does he need a break? Are your clicks well-timed?

DON’T think of the clicker as a recall signal or magical “attention getting” wand/device. I know I said this yesterday, but it’s so important! This can really backfire on people, it’s a great way to use the clicker to teach your dog to ignore both you and the click, ruining what may be one of your most effective training tools in the process.

DON’T be a drill sergeant. Clicker training should be fun and exciting for your dog. Very few things which are both fun and exciting also fall under the category of “predictable.” Varying your routine will keep your dog interested in the game – instead of doing 10 sits in a row, why not ask for three sits, four hand targets, one down, two sits, three hand targets, one settle on a mat, five steps with me in heel position off leash, one sit, one down, one hand target, and two more sits? This is more interesting for your dog and promotes stimulus control for a number of important behaviors. Clicker training should be fun – if it’s not fun, it’s not clicker training. If your dog is bored to death, it’s not clicker training.

DON’T repeat cues! This isn’t even related to clicker training specifically but to all dog training. Hearing someone say, “Fluffy, sit! Fluffy! FLUFFY! Fluffy, sit! Sit! Sit, please? SIT! Fluffy, SIT, PLEASE, SIT, for the love of God, SIT! Fluffy! Fluffy! Sit, girl! fLuFFy, sIt! Flu-uFFy, sit!” is literally worse than listening to loud mastication and lip-smacking (second highest on my list of pet peaves) or listening to the high-pitched squeals of 300 toddlers on “Free Pixie Stick Day” for me. Re-cueing teaches your dog to tune you out through learned irrelevance. I try to avoid re-cueing like the plague. If I ever do ask my dog for a behavior more than once, they do not earn reinforcement for listening the second time. Only first-time responses deserve reinforcement – I want my dog to listen the first time, every time.

DON’T expect PhD before ABC. The stronger a foundation you lay while building the behavior, the more solid the finished product will be. Don’t teach the behavior in your bathroom and expect your dog to be able to perform at the dog park or when you are entertaining.

DON’T allow your dog to practice or receive reinforcement for unwanted behavior. Do use management tools which may include distance management (desensitization), tethering, leashes, gates, crates, avoid environments or situations which trigger the unwanted response, etc. while you are training your dog.

DON’T confuse your dogs by having two cue words which sound too similar (“Sit” and “lick” sounded a lot alike for Mokie, so I changed the lick cue to “Treat” to avoid confusing her).

DON’T buy into the many myths about clicker training, which we’ll talk about tomorrow.

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