Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Clicker obsession warning!

Attending a recent seminar with the APBC, and explaining the joys of clicker training (and therefore learning theory) to recent classes has sometimes made me wonder if I am in the grip of a clicker obsession - and more to the point, is that such a bad thing?

Experiences at seminars and with other trainers
I am always surprised when other trainers feel the need to make it clear that they "are NOT clicker trainers". Its a shame that they seem to feel defensive about their identity, and also interesting that they haven't found these methods useful. It could be that the language of clicker trainers (a very diverse bunch themselves) implies other methods are substandard? Or that the more academic style puts some trainers off?

More specifically, as far as I am concerned, good training is all about clear communication and provision of information - based on learning theory. Whether or not one chooses to use a 'clicker' device is almost irrelevant in terms of training principles - though some trainers seem to feel otherwise. One of the beauties of clicker training for me has been the exposure of everyday trainers and handlers to learning theory and training principles - instead of blindly following set protocols of how to teach sit/down/come/sendaway now people are learning the principles and really understanding WHY things do/do not work.

Using an event marker of any kind does seem to dramatically speed up understanding on both ends of the lead, and reminds us that canines are not naturally verbal language creatures. For me, a clicker is simply the easiest way to use this principle in my everyday life. I also love the change in training relationship from luring/bribing/coercion to offering/encouraging/sharing.

Personal experience (Marco)
Marco Polo is the newest canine resident in our household, a foster dog for Wiccaweys who has been here just over one week. Marco is just 2 years old and was born profoundly deaf. Although he is now looking for a new family, one of his previous owners has taught him quite a bit of sign language. The interesting thing for me was seeing the difference between my own clicker principle trained deaf dog, and Marco - a lure trained deaf dog. Now obviously I can't attribute ALL of these differences to clicker versus lure, but I think several of them do seem linked.

Marco is very clear on the signs he does know - but each is a distinct behaviour, asking for linking sequences of even just two behaviours causes bemused and puzzled faces. He doesn't offer any behaviours apart from the stereotypical collie stare at my face, and has not transferred things like nose touch or paw touch to anything apart from a simple stationary hand target. Interacting with novel objects is beyond his understanding at the moment, as is following a target. Once we step outside the front door - his attention is non-existent (some nerves, mostly distracted) and he seems unable to offer any of his behaviours apart from a sit!

We've been working on teaching him a clicker sign as for my little deaf dog, but I had a feeling he wasn't really making the connection, and our initial attempts to get any sort of eye contact just in the front garden never mind on the pavement were going nowhere.

Change of tactic - quick session to sensitise to the LED clicker light and I got the feeling we were cooking on gas, much sharper focus and a thinking brain started to emerge!

Moving outside the front door, suddenly not only was I getting some eye contact, when we 'clicked' and rewarded his eyes were coming back to me for more. In that first 10min session we made it out onto the pavement and managed some basic moving-back-ups (game borrowed from Pam Dennison). There's a noticeable re-orient to the 'clicker' and a dramatic difference in his attitude.

So, am I clicker obsessed? I don't know, but I am certainly obsessed with any technique that can offer crystal clear communication channels between handlers and dogs!