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Is clicker training too mechanical?

ready300I have been thinking about a belief I have heard expressed a number of times recently. The idea that clicker training is too mechanical or unemotional.

And that this somehow makes it an inferior, or less desirable approach to dog training.

I can understand how this belief has arisen.  Watching a clicker training session is a very different experience from watching a traditional trainer at work

Why does clicker training seem ‘mechanical’?

During clicker training sessions you will notice that the trainer does not talk much to the dog.

What you will hear is repeated clicks (or perhaps a verbal marker like YES) together with any cues (such as ‘SIT’ or ‘DOWN’) if the dog is at that stage  in training.

You will also notice that the trainer is not touching the dog much. So no stroking, patting, cuddling, pulling or pushing.

Why don’t clicker trainers talk and touch?

You can chat to your dog while you are clicker training, but you won’t be as successful as someone who does not do this.

Clicker trainers don’t talk during training sessions simply because it is distracting to the dog and to the trainer, and slows the pace of learning.

Sessions are short, repetitions and treat delivery is rapid.  Trainers need to concentrate on accurate marking of the right behaviour, and chatting is not conducive to concentration.

Why don’t clicker trainer’s touch?

Clicker trainers don’t need to touch dogs because they don’t use ‘modelling’ techniques where dogs are pushed or pulled into different positions.

You can touch and pet your dog while you are clicker training, but again, this is a distraction to the dog and is likely to slow his pace of learning and interfere with your ability to concentrate on accurate marking

Touch and talking matter

Physical contact is an important part of the relationship between man and dog.  And of course, people like to talk to their dogs.  After all, dogs are our friends, members of the family.  It is natural and normal to want to spend time chatting to them.

So does the nature of clicker training spoil this relationship between a dog and his owner? If we are only looking at the time spent training, you might think so, but let’s look at the bigger picture.

Comparing the old with the new

It is interesting for me, as a traditional trainer crossing over to modern training methods, to observe the differences between the two types of training session

Traditional dog training sessions, even with puppies, can be quite time consuming.  Each one might last ten to twenty minutes, sometimes longer.  During that time there will be quite a lot of contact with the dog, often much of that time will be spent patting, stroking and praising the dog when he gets something right.

Compared with this, clicker training can seem very ‘cold’ and mechanical.  But is this a reflection of the dog’’s relationship with his owner?  The answer really depends on how the dog spends the rest of his day

How much time do we spend training?

A clicker trained dog might participate in three or four training sessions a day lasting three or four minutes each.  Sessions are likely to be much shorter in early training.

That is a maximum of 16 minutes or 1% of his day spent in training

A traditionally trained dog might have two sessions a day of ten to twenty minutes each.  A maximum of 40 minutes or 3% of his day spent training.

Either way, 97% of your dog’s life is probably not spent engaging in training sessions.  That leaves plenty of time for cuddles and chats.

The whole day long

The relationship you have with your dog is a reflection of the way you interact with him throughout the whole day.

Providing nothing ‘bad’ or ‘scary’ happens during a training session, not talking or touching your dog during training will not damage that relationship.

On the contrary, it is likely to improve it, as all the evidence points to the fact that dogs enjoy clicker training.

After all, from the dog’s point of view, it simply involves puzzling out how to get rewards.  Unlike many traditional training sessions which also involve the dog in puzzling out how to avoid corrections.

Summary

The vast majority of a dogs life is not spent training.  It is spent relaxing, exercising, playing, sleeping and interacting with people.

There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that clicker trainers cuddle their dogs less, interact with them less, or socialise with them less, or enjoy them less, than traditionally trained dogs.

While these demonstrations of affection may not occur within a clicker training session, they do occur outside of it.

Focused clicker training is an effective and fast way of learning new behaviours and completely avoids the need for corrections.  This is to the dog’s benefit in more ways than one.

Evidence suggests that dogs and their owners enjoy clicker training sessions more than traditional ones.  And many experienced dog trainers and behaviourists believe that clicker training actually deepens the bonds that tie us to our dogs.

So, if you are tempted to give it a go, don’t worry about being thought mechanical or unemotional. Your dog will only benefit.  And he’ll love you just as much as he ever did.

This website is brought to you by Pippa Mattinson

Pippa's book Total Recall is a complete recall training programme for puppies and adult dogs, and her Happy Puppy Handbook is a definitive guide to puppy care and early training

by Pippa Mattinson on May 19, 2015

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sally June 25, 2015 at 12:31 am

It’s very interesting to read this article, especially the concerns that clicker training may be too mechanical. When I use clicker training my dogs response is always sharper than when I use my voice. I think the reason for that is that the clicker is always the same, consistent. Using the clicker gives a snappier, more concentrated aspect to training. As well as that my dog receives plenty of affection, cuddles and playtime interaction after the training session, and at other times throughout the day with games included at intervals between training. I have experienced too how clicker training avoids the need for corrections. Clicker training sets you and your dog up for a focused and fun way of working together.

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Pippa Mattinson June 27, 2015 at 7:15 am

It certainly does Sally, glad you are having fun with it 🙂

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