Occasionally, even in a modern, force-free, systematic approach to training animals like clicker training, your animal might find the new sound of the clicker rather alarming at first. Typically this is just a beginner problem that will resolve once the dog understands a) the relationship between the “click” and food and b) that they are in control of the “click” and can actually make you do it rather than it being a scary sound happening randomly and unpredictably.
Why Use a Clicker?
So why not just toss away the clicker and use a verbal marker instead? I will be honest in saying that I don’t use a clicker all the time for training, but, my dogs are advanced and very open to learning the relationship between their behavior and the reinforcement. So essentially, I’ve earned the right to be a little sloppy because I’ve put the time in with them to build a very strong foundation. However, with beginner dogs, trick training and reactive dogs, I ALWAYS use a clicker.
There are certain situations, like the above mentioned, when you need the precision of a clicker. For example, for a dog that is brand new to learning how their behavior choices can influence the delivery of reinforcement from their human, the timing of reinforcement MUST be immediate. This is one of the first and most important advantages to using a conditioned reinforcer like the clicker - it can be delivered within 100-200 milliseconds while even a one-syllable word is going to be at least twice as long. It’s short and sweet and right to the point, helping the dog know EXACTLY what they did to earn that click.
Teaching tricks and working with reactive dogs, you are often asking them to perform behaviors they don’t normally do or asking them to do something different from what has already been conditioned. Therefor in these situations, the precision of a clicker to capture and shape new behaviors is invaluable. That same precision isn’t necessary to teach a dog behaviors like sit and lay down, because these are things that they already do anyway so they are very easy to put on cue without a clicker.
The Science Behind the "Click"
The scientific research on the benefits of using a clicker in animal training is fascinating but I will save you from the boring details of that research in this particular article. I will however, just quickly sum it up for you. The sound of the clicker gives off what is called “instant onset/offset sounds” and that means the energy in the sound begins at full force, rather than gradually increasing in amplitude and this stimulates the cells perceiving the sound instantly. Cool, right?! Furthermore, the sound of the click also gives off, what is called, “broadband sounds” meaning the sound contains energy in a broad range of frequencies from high to low so they light up a lot of cells in the dog’s brain at the same time. Sounds
like words are called, “narrow band sounds,” and they have energy in a smaller range of frequencies. So the clicker sound gets more cells in the brain fired up!
Although there are times when I don’t use a clicker and I rather use a marker word instead, I don’t kid myself that the science points towards the more effectiveness of a clicker. So when it is immensely important that I effectively deliver the training information to my dog, such as in the case of reactive dogs, I will always use the tool that gives me the most precision, has no emotion attached to it and will light up the most cells in their brain to set them up for the best possible learning.
Tips on How Create a Joyful Response to the "Click"
If you’ve attempted to “charge up” your clicker only to discover it startled your dog and caused them to shutdown instead of have an enjoyable experience with it, here are a few ways to help you get through the initial mishap:
MORE Ideas to Establish the Positive Connection
With any of these variations, rather than trying to habituate the dog by clicking at random, try to make the connection between the marker very clear:
Have a “click session” to build a strong, pleasant association between the click and food:
Still Fearful? Let's Explain It Gently
If your dog is still cowering away from you or trying to hide they are clearly misinterpreting the situation, which lets be honest, you’ve probably come to me for training because you have a reactive dog that misinterprets most situations in their life. So this won’t be really THAT surprising. Let’s work though it and help them understand the game by explaining it to them.
We Always Want What we Can't Have...
This STILL isn’t working? Well I’ve got another game for you. You always want what you can’t have…
This will be a great learning experience for you as well! You will learn much about your dog through this process and you’ll both feel pretty good about overcoming such a big obstacle in the initial stages of your training career. That should about do it though. Keep learning and keep having fun!
I have spent the past 15+ years learning the science of how all things learn and mastering my art as an animal trainer, behaviour consultant and transformative coach. With my specialty in canine reactivity, fear, aggression and canine communication, I have many insights to share into understanding, preventing, predicting and changing canine behaviour.