Myths About Positive Reinforcement and Clicker Training – Part 2

When to comes to dog training, myths abound, especially when you are talking about Clicker Training. Eric Brad engages in a little myth busting.

There are lots myths and half-truths Clickerscirculating these days over the Internet and in dog training circles about Positive Reinforcement and Clicker Training. No doubt some of the misinformation is born of ignorance or the effects of passing information by word of mouth. There also seems to be a concerted effort on the part of some trainers to marginalize modern training methods as “a fad” or a passing fancy. They seek to position it more as new-age, politically-correct nonsense than as practical science and research.

For all of its detractors, Positive Reinforcement and Clicker Training has shown itself to be remarkably effective in training not just dogs but species such as sea lions, belugas, horses, and even zoo animals such as exotic birds and rhinos. The evidence is clear and abundant — animals learn more quickly, retain behaviours longer, and experience less stress and discomfort with Clicker Training than with traditional training methods.

With all of the evidence in its favour, Clicker Training would seem to be an obvious choice, but myths about Clicker Training continue to keep people from trying it. Some say it is a far too complicated form of training but this video shows that it’s so simple that children can do it. Clicker Training has virtually no downside if you happen to perform it badly other than perhaps overfeeding your dog.

Here are a few of the common myths about Clicker Training and some explanations as to why they are false:

Myths about Clickers and Clicker Training

Training with food will make your dog beg from the table — No, feeding your dog from the table will make your dog beg from the table, and feeding your dog from the couch will make your dog beg while you are on the couch. Feeding your dog after he does a specific behaviour (like “Sitting”) will make him do that behaviour more often to get the food! Isn’t that the essence of training? An important part of Clicker Training is getting the dog to understand that he gets his food reward after offering the desired behaviour and earning his “click” from the trainer.

Breland & otterClickers and Clicker Training are just gimmicks, fads someone dreamed up — The first clicker was used by Keller Breland in his animal training in the 1950s. Marian and Keller Breland’s company, Animal Behaviour Enterprises, went on to become one of the most successful animal training companies ever, from 1955 to the mid-1980s. The principles of Clicker Training have been used in marine mammal training at animal parks and even in government projects since the 1960s.

Karen Pryor brought Clicker Training into the public eye in 1984 with her book Don’t Shoot the Dog. In 1987, she began offering seminars on how to Clicker Train animals. The work of Karen Pryor and many others has helped Clicker Training grow in scope and popularity. Today, clickers are available at nearly every pet store and there are dozens of books on how to Clicker Train dogs, cats, birds, horses — and even people — to do amazing things. Clicker Training has been around for more than 60 years. It’s no fad!

If you use Clicker Training, your dog won’t work without the clicker or the food rewards — Every Clicker Training book contains clear and detailed instructions for fading out the use of both the clicker and the food rewards as part of the standard training method. Anyone who tells you that either the clicker or food rewards must be present or a Clicker Trained dog won’t perform simply doesn’t understand the basics of Clicker Training. A clicker is most useful when introducing a new behaviour to a dog. It provides a clear and precise signal for what behaviour is earning the reward. When your dog is learning a new behaviour, food rewards provide a strong incentive to play what amounts to a guessing game with the trainer. Once the behaviour becomes well known, the need for the precision of the clicker and the motivation of the food reward diminishes rapidly.

Clicker Training is unhealthy because food treats will make your dog fat and he will beg for treats — Here’s a fact for you: all dogs eat, usually every day. Eating is not unhealthy. Clicker Training books advocate that trainers use quality food rewards in very small portions (often pellet-sized bits) so the dog can do many repetitions with consuming a lot of extra food. Those same books also advise that the dog’s meal sizes should be decreased to accommodate for the treats delivered in training. A Clicker Trained dog should eat no more in a day than he would if he were not training. Since Clicker Training teaches the dog that behaviours are necessary before the “click and treat” will happen, it’s more likely that the dog will beg for more training than beg for food.

Sources of Information

If you have seen an animal perform in a TV commercial, music video, or movie, chances are they were Clicker Trained or trained using Positive Reinforcement. The reason for this is simple: Clicker Training works quickly, creates very durable behaviours, and the animal remains happy and very motivated to work with the trainer. The numbers of people who understand, teach and practice Clicker Training are relatively few and far between compared with the numbers of people who practice traditional training.

My friend and Clicker Trainer Katherine Martucci trained two of the dogs in this “Ok Go” music video. She tells me that all of the dogs in the video were Clicker Trained and that most behaviours were taught on set only two weeks before the shoot. Please note that “Ok Go” is famous for doing videos in one take with no editing — this is one continuous video from start to finish!

You work hard for your money and so do dog trainers. Is it any wonder that those who feel threatened by a new technology like Clicker Training would want to discredit it? It takes time and effort to investigate something new. It takes even more time and effort to master a new approach in order to do it well. So it can be difficult to know what to believe about various dog training methods based on your sources of information.

For me, the best way to check out what a trainer has to say is to see them work with dogs. What do their methods look like? How effective are they? How motivated are the dogs working with them? Do the dogs look happy or stressed? What are the results?

Going to dog training classes to observe is a great way to understand a trainer’s methods. Watching videos of a trainer on YouTube or other sources can also be helpful. When listening to what a dog trainer has to say about working with dogs, I try to make sure that what they are telling me makes sense given the information I have read in books and on the internet from trusted sources (authors with DVM or PHD or MA after their name or authors who cite reliable sources).

If what I’m being told doesn’t make sense, then even a trainer saying “I’ve worked with hundreds of dogs” doesn’t really mean anything to me. That trainer may have indeed worked with hundreds of dogs but it doesn’t mean he or she has anything to offer me and my dog. That old saying comes back to me again and again, “All dog training works — eventually.” I want to choose a method that is easy, efficient and enjoyable for me and my dog.

Use multiple sources of information to get a clear picture of how you want to train. Talk to trainers, read books, search the Internet, talk to breeders. Most importantly, listen to your dog. Is he or she enjoying the training? Is he learning? Is there a better way or a different way?

We all love our dogs. I think it’s worth checking out what’s out there in dog training and separating the facts from the myths, and there are a LOT of myths out there.

Have fun with your dog!

Read Part I of Eric Brad’s “Myths about Positive Reinforcement and Clicker Training”

Photo Credits

Clickers – from the website
Breland & Otter – from the website

Video Credit

Ok Go – White Knuckles from

Recent Eric Brad CPDT-KA Articles:

  • The Dog That Changed My Life
  • Keeping Your Dog Informed
  • Teaching Your Dog to Not-Behave
  • The Simple Complexity of Dog Training
  • What The Dog Wants

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