Choke Collars, Corrections, Classical Conditioning, and Clickers

I was dimly aware of clickers being used in animal training from the time I was a child and went to the Animal Actors show at Universal Studios. I remember hearing the clicks while the trainers made the animals perform tricks, and my brother explaining that’s how they got animals to do things.

When I first learned to use a clicker with Isis, it was a revelation. She was already two years old. Our initial training experience was with an old-school trainer who had us use a pinch collar. I have since realized the lunacy of jerking a dog’s collar and calling it a “correction.” It’s not a correction if it doesn’t correct the problem, is it? Our second trainer was a woman we’ll call “Tracey,” who suggested “distracting” dogs with treats to keep them from barking and lunging at things.

The clicker was introduced to us by a positive reinforcement trainer we’ll call “Linda,” who explained the principles of classical conditioning. The following are excerpts from Bark and Lunge, where it comes together for me:

Linda handed me a two-inch-long oblong red plastic clicker with a yellow button. “Clickers are tools that focus on what the dog does right, instead of punishing them for what they do wrong. You get better communication and a better relationship with your dog.”

Linda clicked, then handed Isis a treat. “First, we need to prime the clicker.” Like Pavlov’s dogs before her, Isis caught on very quickly that the click meant something good was coming next. “Now, you can start clicking for the action you want, and give the reward when she’s in the position you want.” Linda asked Isis to sit, and clicked as soon as she started to lower her butt. When Isis had completed the move, Linda handed her a treat. “I’m reinforcing the position of sit by giving her the treat now.”

I practiced a few times, thrilled by how much Isis enjoyed the game. After each click and treat, she looked up at me eagerly.

What’s next, Mom?

“Clicker training creates an attentive dog who loves to go to work. I’ve been truly amazed at the results I’ve seen with clicker training and don’t understand why any dog trainers would still use choke collars or negative reinforcement.”

I looked guiltily at Isis’s pinch collar.

Who would put this medieval torture device on a puppy? I did, not knowing any better.

Who would put this medieval torture device on a puppy? I did, not knowing any better.

A few days later, I took Isis to a parking lot to practice classical conditioning with the clicker. Isis was amped up, as if we were in a completely unfamiliar place, even though she’d been there before. She darted to the end of her leash, moving erratically and sniffing the ground.

I clipped one end of her leash to my belt and started walking. Every time she was near my left side, I clicked and treated. If she forged ahead, I stopped and went the other direction. I knew this dance from our basic obedience classes. We were aiming for a solid heel, which Isis had yet to master. In this low-distraction parking lot, she was right there beside me, her entire focus on the treats in my hand.

Interesting. Tracey’s treat method hadn’t gotten Isis to walk beside me properly. What was different now?

The clicker.

Isis had learned that the sound of the clicker meant a treat was forthcoming. When I started to walk, she followed dutifully. I clicked as soon as she reached my side, which made her pause long enough to take a treat from my hand and process that the click marked the place where she was supposed to be. Major progress. Without the clicker, she might take the treat on her way past me to charge ahead, but I had no way to communicate that I would prefer for her to walk beside me instead.

This clicker business was genius!

An assortment of clickers collected from our various positive reinforcement classes.

An assortment of clickers collected from various positive reinforcement classes.

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