We are clicker trainers

KlickerträningWe started our publishing company Klickerförlaget eight years ago because we wanted to publish our own book “Retrieving for All Occacsions” in Swedish – but rather quickly the publishing house developed into something more. We want to spread knowledge about positive dog training – preferably clicker training – through the written word, videos and courses. But this clicker training thing. What is it really?

Both Elsa and I have been clicker trainers for many years and trained to become instructors at Canis dog school – a dog school that we have much to thank for when it comes to spreading knowledge about clicker training in the Nordic countries.

Like all philosophies or schools of thoughts on for example dog training, our way of dog training has developed over the years and we find this quite crucial. If a method or a way of working doesn’t grow and change with its users, it risks becoming restrictive instead of an aid and an enabler.

We have chosen this training methodology for three main reasons. The reasons being that the methodology is:

  • pleasurable
  • effective
  • ethically defensible

As clicker trainers we are looking for “good” – and we make sure to reinforce it. This approach gets you in a good mood. I promise! 🙂

We are also clicker trainers because we find that it’s usually a very effective way to train dogs. Teaching the dog different things with this methodology often goes very fast. And the dogs show great retention of the behaviors.

And we are clicker trainers because it feels good from an ethical point of view. We consciously avoid training with aversive corrections. The worst thing that can happen is that the dog doesn’t get the reward. (Which might also mean that we interrupt the dog from rewarding itself with work – like for example hunting – but that’s for another blog post.)

In recent years, we have increasingly begun to refer to ourselves as clicker thinkers. What do we mean by that? To us, clicker training is a way of thinking. Really. It is a way to relate to life – and dog training. The basic tenant is as previously mentioned to look for the good stuff in order to reinforce it. Because dogs do things for two reasons – to get what they want or to avoid something they don’t “want” (aversives) we just need to think about a little about our rewards and voilá: then we have the world’s chance to teach our dogs almost anything.

The following characterizes our way of training and thinking:

  • We are looking for the good stuff and make sure to reward it. That is: we work with positive reinforcement.
  • We begin with offered behavior. We often use play to get behavior (like for example taking an object) and by rewarding the responses we want, we get more and more of the behavior. We can also capture the behaviors the dog does and that we want it to continue doing by rewarding those. If the dog gets to be involved and figure stuff out when learning something, learning usually goes very fast and the performance becomes solid. (In other words, dogs don’t differ from other species when it comes to learning.)
  • We divide all our training into small parts and train each part separately. When we think every part is good enough, we put them together into a chain, such as a whole retrieve (which consists of a number of parts).
  • We never blame the dog. If the dog can’t handle the task we’re asking it to do, we didn’t teach it well enough.
  • We prevent the dog from self-rewarding. We believe this to be an important success factor in the training. If the dog gets to rehearse performing unwanted behaviors – like running towards a person she likes – although I’ve blown the recall whistle and then reaches that person and gets to kiss and jump on her, well, then that behavior is most certainly reinforced.
  • Sometimes we use a clicker. We particularly use the clicker when teaching the small details of a chain or when we really need a reward marker to communicate to the dog what exact detail was correct. Teaching the dog something will go so much faster if we can mark the behavior with precision. Of course, of course you can use a sound or word as your marker, but the clicker is amazingly precise if you only take the time to practice your timing a bit.

I think this training sets the occasion for a lot of WOWS. It’s fun, cool, fast and provides you with a great many aha-moments. We often have ” cross-over trainers” in our courses (that is, trainers who were previously more focused on looking for errors and correcting these but have made the switch to looking for good things and rewarding those). We have heard several variations of “I used to be annoyed with my dog during training; I felt like my dog made a lot of mistakes. Now I am almost always in a good mood, and I see how many things my dogs gets right”. That’s a great feeling!

We sometimes hear people claim that clicker training is harmful and stressful to the dog. But clicker training in itself is not stressful or harmful. However, BAD training can be stressful and harmful to the dog. And everyone is capable of training poorly, that has nothing to do with being a clicker trainer. Observe your dog. Do what works for the both of you.

In that same spirit, we sometimes hear that clicker training lacks boundaries. But, again, you can have too few boundaries and too little structure, no matter what training method you use.

If you have the slightest tendency to love creating structure, you can get to really make use of that as a clicker training. You can count, measure, keep an Excel spreadsheet and make lovely little graphs of your training. You can make your training very data driven if you enjoy that.

But if your inclination is to be a bit more intuitive, you can get to use that too. The training is often fast and you need to be able to observe your dog and make split second decisions to keep your training on the right track in the moment.

There are many different ways to be a clicker trainer. We sometimes come across discussions on how to be as clicker trainer, like there is a “right” and “wrong” way. We stay away from these discussions and devote our energy to training our dogs. 🙂

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