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.


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