Is Training A Dog With A Clicker Harmful? – Phoenix Scottsdale AZ Dog Training – Dog Trainer – Behaviorist

Is Training A Dog With A Clicker Harmful? – Phoenix Scottsdale AZ Dog Training – Dog Trainer – Behaviorist

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Sam Basso
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Clicker training was the big sensation in the 1990′s. It was popularized as a new and revolutionary type of animal training method. It’s origins date back decades. It started out with the study of the concept of the stimulus, which is any change in the environment that an animal can perceive. But, it really came into it’s own with the development of the Theory Of Classical Conditioning by Pavlov and theTheory Of Operant Conditioning, by B. F. Skinner, and after the amazing results that were then seen training animals such as dolphins at commercial water parks. Pavlov created his own terminology for behavior. B. F. Skinner created behavioral terms to explain his theory, such as the word, “reinforcement”. The root of the word was “force”. So, to force something was to trigger it to happen. To do it again, was to force it again, or to “re-force”, or reinforce the behavior. Repetition of the experiences of forcing a behavior resulted in maintaining the learning.

The assumption is that there are only two types of learning, typically referred to as “type R” and “type S”. Type R, or respondent conditioning, or Classical Conditioning, is when a passive animal does a behavior because of a stimulus. Type S, or Operant Conditioning, is when an active animal does something, the animal notices a reinforcement as a result of doing that behavior, and, depending upon whether that reinforcement was perceived as pleasant or unpleasant, the behavior will then either be more or less likely to be done by that animal in the future, especially if the behavior is repeated again and again.

For a while, all of this sounded great. Behavioral experiments could then be performed on animals, setting up situations and then measuring results. Scientists love things that can be added up with a computer, and charted on graphs. As a result, this became the dominant force in the scientific behavioral community. And in many ways, it still is the dominant force in animal behavior experiments.

But, like all theories, there were gaps. These theories didn’t explain many types of behavior or learning. But, since a lot of people had staked their careers on these theories, they had an interest in not hearing the criticisms of their theories. At the same time, these theories were then being used by trainers on animals, especially on mammals such as dolphins. When these theories were applied, we saw some awesome acrobatic displays. Then the dog training community started imitating what was being done with dolphins. People that understood the theories, and how to apply them, became the new training celebrities. And a dog training industry started, which became to be referred to “clicker training”, primarily focused on Type S conditioning.

Problems Developed: But, the flaws in the theories hadn’t been thoroughly explored or explained, yet clicker training started being applied to a wide variety of dog training and behavioral modification programs. It didn’t work in all situations because it was only addressing certain parts of animal learning and behavioral mechanisms.

In the meantime, behavioral scientists had started questioning the R and S theories. But, that hadn’t trickled down into the dog training community because most dog trainers aren’t well educated. A lot of the way dog trainers learn is: monkey see, monkey do. So, a lot of dogs were getting well trained in some aspects, and not in others. It would be like trying to fight Kung Fu, but you could only use your arms, but not your legs. You might get really good at all the striking skills using hands and fists, but you were helpless if the other guy started using leg kicks and leg sweeps. You would only be half trained in self defense. So, the same was happening with the clicker training world. So, it started out where it looked like a new dog training revolution was happening. But, we started noticing that certain behaviors weren’t being fixed by clicker training. Something was wrong.

Too Limited: You see, there is more to behavior and learning than what these theories say. The scientific papers by critics of these theories were actively suppressed in the academic community, so that perpetuated the lie that everything that needed to be known about learning had now been completely discovered. Scientific studies and papers that were submitted for publication and peer review were summarily rejected and not given a fair hearing. Even today, this is still going on, and the fight hasn’t yet been settled. There are careers and reputations on the line, and no one wants to find out that their life’s work might have all been half baked, and no one wants their research results to be repudiated by new discoveries. That’s just human nature.

The Answer: So, then we have to come to the questions: Is training a dog with a clicker, using operant conditioning methods, harmful?

I’d say no… and yes.

For some types of behaviors, clicker training is a great way to go. It isn’t completely necessary to use clickers, but there won’t be any harm in some circumstances. Yet, in other situations, clicker training will be useless or even harmful. That is because some behaviors aren’t being properly affected by the concepts that are applied when using clickers.

If you’ve gotten this far, I’m betting you are still confused. I understand. I’d have to write many pages, using examples and citing studies, to show you how the Type R and S theories have been discredited.

If you are trying to teach a dog some tricks, a competitive obedience routine, or an agility course, then clicker training might just be the best method for you. If you are working with a qualified trainer, then you are going to see some great results. On the other hand, for dogs that have to obey in the real world, with threats, predators, aggressive encounters, other dogs and dog packs, some survival situations, a variety of people and other animals, then clicker training will then start to fail you. Since I teach companion obedience, with dogs that are outside the controlled environment of the competition ring, I don’t use clickers. They aren’t as useful in those circumstances, and to solely rely on them would endanger the dogs, the people, strangers, other animals, and property. Dogs in the real world aren’t like dolphins trapped in a swimming pool with nothing else to focus on but a noise maker and a bucket of fish. Dogs in the real world have more to deal with, and their environments aren’t so controlled.

[PLEASE READ: Why I Don’t Believe In Clicker Training ]

Sam Basso is a professional dog trainer and behaviorist, in the Phoenix/ Scottsdale metropolitan area. He’s known for being fun, kind, intelligent, and humane. Sam Basso has a unique personal touch. He has appeared on his own TV show, been a guest radio expert, gives seminars, publishes a dog related blog, does rescue volunteering, and is active in promoting animal welfare and fair dog laws.

#dogtraining #dogtrainer #phoenixdogtraining #scottsdaledogtraining #dogbehaviorist #dogwhisperer #dogaggression #puppy #housetraining


  1. Leslie Jeanne 7 April 2012

    uhhhh… I know a lot of “real world” dogs that are clicker trained and totally able to use their training to avert the potential mishaps. It really depends on how well the dog is clicker trained.

    • samthedogtrainer 8 April 2012

      And I know a lot of real world dogs that were clicker trained and it still didn’t meet the need. I have worked with many clicker trained dogs that I was hired to work with because of behavioral problems, especially aggression problems. I also know of the studies that show the problems with operant conditioning. If clicker training is working for you or your dog, that is great. Keep doing it, but if it isn’t, then realize you’ve encountered one of those situations where it is ineffective, and believe what you are seeing more than believing in the theory you are trying to apply.

      • Lori Fricks 8 April 2012

        “And I know a lot of real world dogs that were clicker trained and it still didn’t meet the need.” In those circumstances, one must look at the skill level of the trainer who worked with the dog. I would also question whether or not the owners followed up after the trainer left.

        “Could you put a woman’s behavior on command, such that you could command her to have sex with another person, using clickers and treats?” Giving an example of clicker training a human woman to have sex on command is a ridiculous example, and shows that you have only a rudimentary understanding of Learning Theory and behavior in general.

      • samthedogtrainer 8 April 2012

        You failed to answer any of my three challenges because there is no answer with your obsolete theory. If you are truly an expert on operation conditioning you’d at least given it a try using the jargon of the theory. So, it is faulty debating strategy to just say there is something wrong with me to deflect and obscure what is really bothering you… that you now realize you’ve wasted a lot of time learning a false theory.

  2. I am a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (certified clicker trainer) and do not appreciate the misinformation in this article. Why do you want to downplay the power and effectiveness of this type of training? Usually only force-based trainers have a vested interest in doing so. Clicker training is not a fad, nor is it harmful. Quite the contrary. Clicker training has been around for decades and is the method of training used by the world’s top animal training professionals. It is used in a wide variety of settings from zoos to veterinary offices to agility to guide dog training to scent training work and much, much more! clicker training can be used to teach any animal anything it is physically able to do. It can be used for animal husbandry as well as training and behavior modification. I know – I use it successfully every day and have been for several years!

    • samthedogtrainer 8 April 2012

      This is not misinformation. There is more to the way behavior and learning works that is postulated in the theory of operant conditioning. If you have not been taught that in those classes, then that is the fault of those instructors. I’m sorry this goes against what you’ve been led to believe. Clearly clicker trainers have a vested interest in promoting this. You may wish to read another article I’ve written:

      Are the principles powerful? Absolutely. Does the theory work in all circumstances? No. Do clickers work in all circumstances? No.

      Let’s talk bite control work. Tell me which police department, military division, or professional protection trainer uses clickers to teach bite work to dogs. Nope, the guy wears a sleeve, and goes through a variety of exercises to stimulate biting, then over time the dog is taught to control the biting. They might have used the clickers for some of the obedience. Might have used them for some of the tracking. But, once the obedience and protection work are combined, the “out” work is performed, the clickers aren’t used. Why is that?

  3. I am not only a certified clicker trainer, but also have a bachelor’s degree in science and a master’s degree in higher and adult education. I have been a professional educator for 40 years and have studied learning theory at the graduate level. I have completed graduate level education in animal behavior and learning as well as behavior modification. My training method has evolved from military-style compulsion training to positive reinforcement training to The Third Way and finally to clicker training. Clicker training is a powerful method of training, and in fact, is the only method of training that is really effective as well as humane. There is ample research and peer-reviewed literature to support my position.

  4. Leah Roberts 8 April 2012

    Right, why go with a method that is based in scientific behavioral modification and learning theory when you can just make it up as you go along, like the author of this blog did? (Rolls eyes.)

    • samthedogtrainer 8 April 2012

      Clearly, you are not well read regarding the scientific criticisms of the theory. Nor are you well versed in studies of learning that contradict the theory. You didn’t answer my challenge regarding protection training, either. There are many mechanisms of behavior and learning that are not addressed by operant conditioning. If you think that is all the science of behavior, then you have not been keeping up with the literature. You are assuming that I’m not well read or educated. That isn’t correct at all. You are assuming that the only thing known about behavior is what has been done with animals in Skinner boxes. That is also wrong. It is a theory, not a law. No one in the scientific community would call operant conditioning a law. They call it a theory for a reason. Same with classical conditioning. They are theories, and they don’t explain all there is about behavior and learning. Let’s pick a small example. If a chick hatches from an egg, and you present yourself to the chick as it’s “mother”, the chick will imprint upon you. A type of learning has taken place, a type of learning that doesn’t involve reinforcement. How is that explained in the theory of operant conditioning? I can give you numerous examples of non-reinforcement types of learning. I can also give numerous examples of behavior that can’t be controlled with clickers, but can be taught and controlled without clickers. Sorry, the theory is obsolete. It is incomplete and it doesn’t account for a great deal of behavior that a human can see and manipulate. Here is another example. Did you read my other article on clicker training? Could you put a woman’s behavior on command, such that you could command her to have sex with another person, using clickers and treats? Please, explain that to me. If the theory is valid, it is valid for all organisms, not just dogs or dolphins.

      • You are correct, Lori. There are people who use clickers to teach “obedience,” and that is a dead give-away they do not understand clicker training or what it entails. A clicker is simply a tool like a violin that has 4 strings. A non-violinist doesn’t get the same music out of the instrument as a virtuoso. But unlike violin playing, clicker training is pretty easy to use and pretty resistant to user error under the guidance of a qualified instructor.

        “Could you put a woman’s behavior on command, such that you could command her to have sex with another person, using clickers and treats?”

        With this ridiculous comment I am ceasing further attempts at education, as I find this very crude and offensive (what kind of mind comes up with such an example?), but let me say this. In clicker training, we use cues, not commands. The author of this article clearly has no understanding of the principles of clicker training, and what he writes is a misguided interpretation of what he has read.

      • samthedogtrainer 8 April 2012

        So, each of you loses 10 points for giving emotional answers, not scientific explanations of behavior. Regarding the sex example, a great deal of animal behavior revolves around sex… male / female, male / male, reproduction, marking, territorial rights, and on and on. I use the human example so as to make it clearer for those that don’t study animal behavior. Read the Origin of Species some time, it is all about behavior and reproduction. When discussing dog behavior, it is in no way irrelevant or crude. Pick up any animal behavior or biology textbook, and reproductive behavior is almost half or more of the book. Unless you prefer to think of animals as fuzzy little human beings, it is important to understand the behavioral systems you are manipulating. If you can’t explain how a very familiar behavioral system works for humans, your own kind, then how are you going to explain it and manipulate it with animals? You can’t.

  5. Shirley Thoreson-CPDT-KA 8 April 2012

    You may want to sit in on one of his seminars to get the education you need!

    • samthedogtrainer 8 April 2012

      I know who he is. I actually spoke to him about a decade ago about a different matter. I’ve even spoken to karen pryor on a different matter. I know who these people are. But this is not personal. Again I am asking for someone here to take up my challenges. You shouldn’t come here acting as though you’re an expert and then not be able to explain what you claim you are an expert about

  6. terry pride CVA, PPG, TDF, USA-apdt#1827 8 April 2012

    what “THREE challenges” are they?

    i saw no challenges mentioned. …??

  7. terry pride CVA, PPG, TDF, USA-apdt#1827 8 April 2012

    i have successfully used marker-training
    to teach pet dogs, SDs [hearing-ear & wheelchair
    asst], to fix serious problem-behaviors including
    human-aggro & dog-aggro with bite histories, etc.

    yet U claim it’s an ineffective fad. I’d say that IMO,
    Cesar Millan’s highly-aversive -handling- [i refuse to
    dignify it as 'training'] meets my criteria for a fad,
    ineffective & harsh to boot.

    any marker that’s unique, neutral or positive-assoc,
    & short in duration, will work; it needn’t be audio.
    APOs have also learned to use marker-training well –
    it’s a highly teachable, flexible technique.

    • samthedogtrainer 8 April 2012

      I have several posts here and elsewhere critical of Cesar Millan. I have also stated clearly that in some circumstances the theory of operant conditioning, and clicker training, can be useful. What I’m also saying is that it isn’t the entire explanation of behavior, it has flaws. It is good that you are doing good work for pet owners and others. I have no problem with that, and if you are successful, more power to you. This is about the theory as a whole, and the applications devised as a whole.

      • samthedogtrainer 12 April 2012

        To the readers, my guests have made a typical scientific error in their arguments. There is always a conflict when explaining any phenomenon between Reductionism and Emergent Properties. Reductionism is a way of examining a phenomenon by breaking it down into its smallest parts. Thus, you might try to study a complex organism, such as a tree or dog or human, into its smallest parts. Thus, a Reductionist would break all that down into all the chemicals in the body: nitrogen, oxygen, carbon and such. However, the dissected animal is now no longer a tree, dog or human. Though that information is useful in studying any species, there are many properties that can’t be figured out at that level of examination. As you zoom back up to higher levels, such a organs, to limbs, to the living organism, you see more and more complex aspects of that species. There are Emergent Properties that become evident as you go up in levels. You can’t predict much about how a dog will obey if you just know its chemical composition. You know more as you study it’s chemical processes, then how its organs work, then how it is all put together, and then as you study a living dog, and then as you study a dog in the real world. Every time you go up a level, there are new properties that emerge for you to examine. Thus, those who study Operant Conditioning are studying a very specific aspect of animal behavior. Yet, there are emergent properties of behavior that operate above those levels. Thus, with that theory, there are many aspects of behavior that are not able to be understood. Operant Conditioning can’t explain why animals form packs, why when a dog gets out the door it runs away, or why dogs fight, or why a dog lifts its leg on your furniture and pees. That’s why I say their theory is obsolete, because they try to use it to explain all behavior, and that is impossible with their theory. To say my understanding of behavior ignores science proves that they haven’t studied science themselves. Look up the terms “reductionism” and “emergent properties” some time, and you’ll see what I’m referring to. Those ARE scientific terms. Clicker trainers try to manipulate and understand behavior on just one level, when there are levels below and above the area of their expertise that can’t be discovered or explained from their limited viewpoint.