Dog Whisperer? Or, Why Should I Be Clicking?
As someone who is interested in dog training or animal training in general, you have probably heard of the term, “horse whisperer.” It is a term given to people that have learned to train horses without using harsh training methods. Historically, many people have trained horses by using rough training methods. “The horse is an animal that survives in the wild by fleeing and kicking at predators that are attacking it. A horse is all about flight, and fear is the dominant emotion.” Temple Grandin, Animals Make Us Human, 105 (2009). Training horses using harsh methods is sort of a sink or swim philosophy. It is certainly possible to force a horse to comply using these methods but it leaves many damaged horses in its wake. It does appear to be counter-intuitive to train a fleeing, frightened animal by using harsh methods. “Horse welfare depends on good training. If everyone could train and handle horses the way the horse whisperers and the old-time horsemen do, lots fewer horses would be put down.” id.
How is all of this related to dog training, you might ask? The term “horse whisperer” describes a training technique that is completely devoid of harsh training practices. The horse whisperers are keen observers of animal behavior that use positive reinforcement in order to train their animals. Horse whisperers do not kick, hit or shock their trainees to perform desired behavior. As you might be aware, there are people in the dog training community that call themselves “dog whisperers.” People who use traditional training methods are able to elicit desired behavior from dogs. But kicking a dog regardless of how gently it might be done, is not whispering. Yanking on the leash is not whispering. Popping the leash is not whispering. Dog trainers have used harsh methods and negative reinforcement when training dogs for centuries but call it what it is, punishment. And punishment is not whispering.
But why should you use a training method that is gentle in nature? Is it more humane? Of course it is. But for someone that simply desires a well trained dog, that person requires the fastest most effective training method possible. Believe it or not, positive reinforcement or “clicker training” is not only correction and punishment free, it is the most effective and fastest way to train an animal. Let me repeat that, clicker training, done properly, is the fastest and most effective way to train an animal.
Clicker training has evolved from research conducted by the renowned psychologist, B. F. Skinner. Expanding on earlier work done by researchers, Skinner, while a graduate student at Harvard, found that he could change the behavior of rats by giving them food rewards for pressing a lever. This research grew into the science of “operant conditioning.” In 1951 Skinner described the use of the clicker in his paper, How To Teach Animals, and continued with his work into the 1960s which included working with pigeons.
Research has found that the most effective teaching occurs when a positive behavior is observed and the learner then receives a reward or reinforcement immediately for that specific behavior. Operant conditioning or clicker training may be the most powerful training method available. I am aware that this is a bold statement; however, years of scientific study and practical experience have proven it to be true. Simply stated, clicker training is a system of positive reinforcement in combination with an event marker. This method of teaching has turned out to be effective for all creatures including dogs, horses and people. Everyone responds well to rewards given for good behavior. Excellent teachers and parents use this method instinctively.
Karen Pryor was a founder of Hawaii’s Sea Life Park and Oceanic Institute where she served as curator and pioneering dolphin trainer. Positive reinforcement is used to train dolphins and as Karen says, “You can’t pop a dolphin’s leash.” Karen Pryor was one of the first people to introduce clicker training to the dog training community in the 1990’s.
As noted above, traditional training relies heavily on negative reinforcement, euphemistically referred to as “corrections.” A problem with negative reinforcement is that while it will stop ongoing behavior, there is no predictable future outcome. Negative reinforcement may work and many animal trainers continue to use it, but punishment actually slows down learning and restricts creativity. An animal that expects punishment will do the minimal amount expected and will not attempt new behaviors because they are afraid of being “corrected.”
The problem with training animals is that they, obviously, do not speak English. With all of the behaviors exhibited by an animal, how do we communicate to them that a specific behavior they just exhibited deserved the reward. By the time you get to the dog with the reward, he doesn’t know why he is getting the treat. (Although, he loved getting the treat.) Can you imagine the difficulty getting a fish to a dolphin the moment she makes a desired jump? That is where the clicker comes in. The clicker marks the desired behavior at the moment it occurs giving the trainer the time needed to get to the learner and offer the reward.
How would this method of teaching work in training a dog? I think we all can agree that most dogs like treats. In clicker training the dog first learns that when he hears the click-click sound he gets a treat. After that, while in a room with his trainer, the puppy is walking around the room and sits down. That behavior is “marked” by his trainer with a click and then he is treated. The dog is thinking, “What was that all about?” He walks around some more and happens to sit down. Again he is clicked and treated. After a couple more times of clicking and treating he starts catching on to something. If he sits down he gets food. This is great and he starts sitting down all over the place. At this point (and this is a major difference between clicker training and traditional training) he learns that the behavior is called sit. He learns the cue (command) of “sit” after he learns to sit. Soon after that a dog will start trying other behaviors to see if that will get him a treat. He is learning happily. That is clicker training in a nutshell. By the way, once the behavior is learned, you will not need the clicker any more for that particular behavior.
If you give yourself the chance to learn clicker training, you will actually become the dog whisperer.
Remember, give gentle dog training a chance. It can’t hurt.