Are you an experienced trainer who is interested in clicker training? I remember that when I first heard about clicker training, it was just in bits & pieces on the Internet. To be honest, I thought it sounded ridiculous and way too good to be true. At that point I had been training (both my own dogs for obedience competition as well as teaching obedience classes) for about 5 years and although I had some deep reservations about some of the things we were doing, I figured that the vastly more experienced trainers from whom I had been learning (at that point) knew better than I. Then in November of 1998, Susan and I were encouraged to go to the national conference of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers which was being held quite near us. Not having any idea what to expect, we soon discovered that the theme of the conference what positive reinforcement training. I am not exaggerating when I say we spent a good deal of that weekend with our mouths hanging open, as we watched trainer after trainer performing what seemed like miracles with their gentle training! And these weren't just pet trainers, either, but top obedience competitors like Patty Ruzzo. Time and time again I saw that my reservations about our previous method of training were valid, and that, indeed, I didn't have to treat dogs roughly in order to teach them.
So, we left that conference convinced of the value of clicker training, but still with many questions. We spent the next few years going to seminar after seminar and filled in the missing pieces. We saw many great people, but I'd like to particularly thank Leslie Nelson who was so helpful as well as the folks at Wonderdogs in New Jersey. Susan also experimented with her then-puppy Falkner and I "retaught" behaviors using different signals or commands to my two old dogs. Two things stand out vividly to me: my Rottweiler bitch Teddy, who had earned her CD & CGC, was a negative-stressing dog who had always hated training. Our previous method was considered very motivational and was way more gentle than what some other trainers were doing, yet her response, for example, to the hand signal or command for Down was to hang her head and slowly crumple to the ground. She looked as if she had expected to be beaten (but never had been). Her heeling was workman-like, but she would plod along at my side, looking straight ahead. The change in these behaviors, re-taught with the clicker and sumptious treats, was dramatic! The new signal for Down got her to drop instantly into a sphinx-like position, head held high, mouth open, eyes shining! The new command (or signal) for Heel had her dancing along at my side, eyes glued to my face. I was stunned, and felt extreme remorse that I had ever trained her any other way.
Anyway, I remember some of the specific questions that I had, as a crossover trainer, and thought that surely others would have the same ones. Below I will address those questions. If you are as crossover trainer with questions that aren't answered here, please e-mail me and I will add your question (and an answer) to this page. And, if it is at all possible, please try to go watch experienced clicker trainers do their stuff. See the information on the Basic Information page for info on finding a clicker trainer in your area as well as the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (who offer many seminars) and the Clicker Expo (sponsored by clicker guru Karen Pryor).
Q1: How can dogs in an obedience class deal with hearing all of the other dogs' clickers?
A: It's funny, this confuses them for maybe 3 minutes. They quickly learn that only their "own" click matters to them.
Q2: I can't ever correct my dog? What if I've given a command & he doesn't respond? Am I just supposed to ignore that?
A: Well, if he hasn't responded, then you actually haven't taught it well enough. (yeah... that blew my mind when I first heard it, too!) Instead of "correcting" him (which actually probably just confuses him and/or makes him not so eager to keep training), you need to re-teach the behavior. Most likely, your dog has learned to respond in quiet situations but needs further training to be able to respond around distractions. Please see the Advanced Training page for more help with that.
Q3: Does this stuff really work?
A: Yes, it does, which is why trainers who are really dedicated to dogs are taking the time, as we did, to learn this method of training. It saddens me that some very experienced trainers are so threatened by clicker training that they feel the need to mock it. I suppose they have not seen it properly taught, to see the magic for themselves, and/or are unwilling to start fresh. Throwing out much of what we knew, re-doing all of the lessons plans and homework sheets for our obedience school was a real challenge for Susan and me, but we have absolutely NO regrets (other than that we didn't learn about clicker training earlier!)
Q4: I have some pretty tough dogs in my classes, are you saying this method will work for them?
A: Yes, I am! Some of our most exciting moments have been seeing aggressive, fearful dogs (from Rottweilers & Pit bulls to Goldens & Poodles) relax and begin to learn. Since we do nothing to hurt them - in any way - they lose the need for their aggression and can relax and learn. Depending on the history of the dog, it can take awhile, but is very rewarding.
Q5: It seems that owners of little dogs were the first to drop out of training in the past. How do they do with clicker training?
A: Wonderfully! Although big dog owners realized that their beasts HAD to be trained, so were willing to do some pretty harsh things to them in efforts to do so, little dog owners saw no such need. Since this type of training is so fun and gentle - if the dog isn't having fun it actually doesn't work - we now have many, many little graduates who have proven to be incredibly responsive.
Q6: You mean I can never physically correct my dog for bad behavior? What about behaviors that are potentially dangerous to the dog?
A: Well, you can still interrupt those! The dog is getting into the trash? Yelling "ACK!" at the dog can be quite effective. My Rottie Sugar Bear is so sensitive and respectful that I leave the stash of pig ears, bones, etc in an open box and she never helps herself... they are MINE to give to her! Yet she is not otherwise what you would call a submissive dog.
What I will NOT ever do is punish a dog for not figuring out what I am trying to teach him fast enough. (See the answer to Q2 for more info on that.)
Q7: When I am trying to teach a new behaviour, if my pup doesn't understand what I want she will try all the things she has learned so far. If nothing gets a click she begins to bark with frustration. I then have to try and stop her barking! What should I be doing?
A: Kudos for your pup for trying other stuff! That shows that the pup is confused about what you want & so offers other behaviors (behaviors that have worked in the past) in hopes of success. I always find this amusing but try not to laugh. So, when that happens, give no punishment of any kind (hey - at least she's trying!) but just ignore those offered behaviors. Try your signal again. If thre's still no correct response, I would train it again, checking to make sure my signal is clear, etc. Possibly you just need some more repetitions of an earlier phase of the training, maybe even going back to the lure for a time or two. We don't want the pup to become too frustrated (although a little frustration can be a good learning tool!) and quit. If you see the pup quit (which can sometimes look like they are losing interest) try something easy that you are sure she knows - C&T that, then go back to working on the original behavior.
If your pup starts to bark at you, always quickly turn away (or even walk away). Be very clear that barking at you NEVER gets attention from you.