Does Clicker Training Work?


Alexa Capra is an Italian Level 3 clicker trainer who works with ex-fighting Pit Bulls that have been rescued from illegal East European fighting rings and sent to her facility near Turin for rehabilitation. In 2006 at Kay Laurence’s Wagmore Barn in rural Gloucestershire, UK, she told a conference of clicker trainers from around the world, many from countries like Australia where Pit Bulls are banned, that she and her team had successfully been able to re-home fourteen of these dogs into family homes.

The only training tools ever needed were delicious food rewards, "lots of love and plenty of cuddles which they had never had before", praise and a simple little plastic box clicker. They had never needed to resort to any of the medications that are often prescribed for dogs with aggression or other emotional issues.

Some people who own a clicker frequently use it to call their dog or to attract its attention. When training for the obedience or conformation ring they can sometimes be heard going click-click-click randomly and without having an idea of its true purpose. They then scoff or complain that clicker training is a passing fad, that it is no good and that “clicker training doesn't work!”

For these people of course it can't possibly work as it is being used for quite the wrong reason! They don’t understand the necessity of correctly conditioning the clicker (a la Pavlov) by first spending some days associating a meaningless stimulus (the sound of the clicker or the dolphin trainer’s whistle) to something that is greatly desired - the fish, the dried liver or piece of sausage, the pat, the verbal praise or the tug toy.

Nor do they realise that once the clicker has been adequately conditioned, the proper and ONLY function of a click, always a single click, is NOT to call a dog or attract its attention but to give specific information of "YES, that's exactly right!" and to separate that precise information from the subsequent reward.

The click, like the dolphin trainer's whistle (and unlike the spoken word "YES!") is instant, can be heard from a distance and always sounds the same. It has the additional advantage of being unemotional and totally non-judgmental. If there is no click it simply means that the right behaviour has not yet happened: so the only 'punishment' is that there is no reward.

The dog (or the horse, pig, parrot, chicken, dolphin or person with TAGteach - Teaching with Acoustical Guidance) is not worried about verbal reprimands or physical corrections so can think clearly, readily self assesses and WANTS to try again. As a result, he or she learns willingly and rapidly and can soon perform brilliantly.

Five week old clicker-savvy puppies learn straight away where to 'go'. Even before they leave the breeder they can often do basic behaviours - 'leave it', 'crate', 'mat', 'shake', 'roll over', ‘spin’,'speak', 'fetch' and 'come' - and, moreover, they do so first time on a visual or verbal cue.

Sue Hogben from Perth, Western Australia, is a leading clicker trainer and competitor in obedience, agility and retrieving competitions. "Spinner", one of her Golden Retrievers, achieved multiple firsts in Novice, Open and Utility classes. In 2000, before he was three, he obtained his Obedience Championship title.

Spinner subsequently had an incredible eight perfect scores (including two on the same day) of 200/200, equivalent to an Olympic 10/10 in gymnastics or diving.

Sue says:"I don't believe Spinner would have come nearly as far without clicker training. I think the positive approach (he has never had a collar correction or voice correction in his training) combined with the precision of knowing what the reward was for has built his confidence and attitude. He does not stress out at all on any exercises and if he makes a mistake, who cares! He is my 8th Utility Dog and the first one that was wholly trained with a clicker and he 'understands' his work better than the others who were all trained with some correction in the 'proofing' stage.'

I came from a correction based background and successfully trained dogs for approx 25 years before changing.  I used a choker chain as I was taught by clubs and also taught myself how to do a forced retrieve which I used on approximately 10 dogs. I trialled successfully with these methods, but found them stressful for both myself and my dogs and so gradually taught myself to train without force. The last dog I trained this way was taught with food/toys and no correction and was Top Obedience Dog for several years in WA. 

I then learnt about clicker training in an article by Gary Wilkes (USA) in ‘Front and Finish’ and have used positive reinforcement techniques ever since - as have my students”.

Sue Hogben has now obtained 18 scores of 200 with five different dogs - and she has been the winner of Western Australia's "Top Obedience Dog" fourteen times with four different dogs. Naturally enough her clicker training workshops around the country are heavily in demand!

Like the dolphins at SeaWorld shows, the birds at free flight displays and increasingly human athletes on the winner's podium Alexa's and Sue's dogs are all proof positive (if in fact any were needed) that a clicker, if used CORRECTLY, is indeed an immensely powerful communication tool that works exceptionally well.

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