STOP! Go no further until you read the following disclaimer!
I am NOT bashing clicker training. I use a clicker for some things in training. I do not click everything. I do not think people who want to click everything are bad, misguided, stupid or lazy. I think they just choose to train differently than I do. And that’s fine. I am not so egocentric that I expect everyone to do exactly what I do. I do not advocate harsh physical training. But I do like to touch my dogs. A lot. I am a certified dog-toucher. And that’s what I want to write about today.
Thank you. Read on.
The Random House College Dictionary defines “compulsion” as “The state or condition of being compelled.” If I jerk my dog’s head up and shove his bottom down on the floor, I am compelling him to sit. If I lure him with a hot dog over his head until he collapses backward into a sit (an awful, rock-back sit, by the way), I am also compelling him to sit.
By that definition, every person who trains a dog to perform a certain behavior is compulsion trainer because we are COMPELLING our dogs to do things they probably wouldn’t be doing at that moment if left to their own devices.
But admittedly, this is probably not what most people think of when the word “compulsion” is used in the context of dog training. Like “correction” it comes negatively loaded with images of force and dominance that relies on pain or threat to achieve the desired end. (I think people must have thought I was beating Phoenix with a nail-studded 2x4, from some of the reactions I got when I mentioned giving him “corrections.” Seriously.)
With that in mind, it’s little wonder the popularity of “shaping” behaviors by using a clicker has never been higher. I have taught Phoenix a number of things using a clicker — including weavepoles that are accurate and fast about 99 percent of the time in the ring, providing I do my part as a handler. I’ve also taught him some silly tricks and a few other behaviors that are connected to obedience skills, so I recognize the value of this type of training. It’s a tool in my training toolbox but it’s not the ONLY tool.
I am seeing more and more people these days who seem reluctant to actually put their hands on their dogs to help them learn and would prefer to click away, never touching their dog. This baffles me. But if it works for you (and I know it does, at least for some), then it’s a wonderful thing and don’t stop. And yes, I know there are some things you just CAN’T teach by physical positioning and the clicker is perfect for that.
I’m certainly NOT advocating a return to the jerk and yank days of training. It makes me CRAZY to watch someone trying to physically force their dog into a position. Too often, pulling and pushing just generates opposition reflex (which can be useful when teaching the dog to “lock up” on stays) but otherwise just turns into a battle of wills if you’re trying to force a dog into a position he does not want to assume.
And you’ll lose every time, even if you DO manage to shove the dog into the desired position, because depending on your dog’s temperament, he’ll either be very annoyed or very confused or very scared or possibly all three. Clicker training DOES manage to avoid this scenario because you can (eventually) get a behavior without having to touch the dog. Maybe I already said that.
Some obedience behaviors must be performed in specific way and I’m just not patient enough to wait for my dog to do something vaguely related to the end product so I can click and treat it. ( I think that’s the real basis of why I don’t click more things — I’m not patient enough.) Yeah, I’ll use a clicker to teach tricks because they’re silly and frankly, I don’t care if we ever totally master them. Plus, I don’t know how in the world I’d teach some of the goofy tricks Phoenix does without shaping them with a clicker.
But when it comes to obedience skills, I have a very clear picture of the desired end result and (hopefully!) a clear set of steps I plan to use to achieve it in a reasonable amount of time. While I totally agree that dogs learn, remember and perform best when they are taught using methods that encourage them to think, not react to a show of force, I want to cut through that vague gray area of “Is this what you want?” “Or this?” “Or maybe this?” and be as specific as I can from the very start. THIS is how you do a sit. THIS is how you do a down. And I want to teach “hands on,” with my touch being part of the training experience from Day One.
Personally, I cannot keep my hands off my dogs, either in training or day to day life. I love touching them. Jamie and Phoenix touch each other a lot. They nuzzle, poke, paw, nibble, push, sniff and bite. They touch ME a lot, too, very often in the same way. They seek out my touch, resting their head in my lap or nudging my hands or — heaven forbid — jumping up on me to lick my face. I love petting them, ruffling their fur, stroking their ears, sliding my hands over lean ribs and hard muscles, playing with their feet. They wiggle and lean into my touch, pushing at me and returning the affection. It seems a natural thing to touch them in the context of training. I want that sense of mutual enjoyment to transfer into training, as both encouragement, support and reward.
Here’s an example - the tuck sit. I love sitting on the floor with a new puppy and bowl of treats, guiding his head up and forward while scooping his little butt forward, tucking his paws in, stroking him and encouraging him to sit “tight.” This IS shaping, although not in the purists’ sense of the word, which would involve rewarding a small string of behaviors until arriving at the final behavior, apparently without ever touching the dog. I can’t do that. It’s a puppy. I have to touch it, guide it, mold it, help it learn. With luck, it will only be in my life for 10-15 years. I can’t possibly touch it enough in that short time.
See, I keep coming back to that. I’m really not a touchy-feely person. I would prefer NOT to be touched by people beyond close friends. But I can’t keep my hands off dogs - my dogs, your dogs . . . it’s a wonder I never got bitten as a child before I knew better because if I saw a dog, I had to touch it. It took a while before I learned how to recognize when a dog didn’t WANT to be touched and that was valuable, too.
Just food for thought today. Happy training.