Yes. And no.
I have been out of the world of dog competition for several years. There was a time when I used to spend a lot of time at dog shows. I would always see clickers for sale, and occasionally discussions would crop up on different training styles. Some were adamant that all dogs should only be trained like dolphins, or marine mammals, others would state that only positive reinforcement should be used “like with animals in zoos” some said you should only train with clickers. But are any of these statements true?
It is entirely possible to achieve results using the above-mentioned methods, but I disagree with the use of the absolute. It has been my experience that the typical dog owner, you and me, does not need to go to the effort of using those types of training systems effectively. A combination of positive and negative reinforcement can be highly effective at shaping the behaviors you want, and raising a happy, well behaved companion. Are you all shuddering now because I used the word ‘negative’? Read on and find out how it’s not as bad as you think. You won’t need a clicker or a whistle.
Being in the worlds of exotic animal as well as dog training I spent a serious amount of time studying and using operant conditioning. I worked at Sea World, I worked at the San Diego Zoo, and I was intimately familiar with training systems used in world-class zoological facilities. I was also teaching dog obedience at the same time, both private and group classes, and I considered several different ways to incorporate clicker training into my classes. I talked about it with my students and got an overwhelming lack of interest in response. It wasn’t hard to figure out why; most people didn’t want to work that hard.
Animal training utilizes the operant conditioning techniques developed by B.F Skinner, and places like this and this will tell you about the man and how his work applies to animal training. It’s a fascinating subject, and far more complex than I’m going to tackle here and now. But I do want to introduce some important concepts.
Animal Training Glossary
Positive Reinforcement. We’ve all heard the term, but what does it mean? How is it useful to animal trainers? The word ‘positive’ is used here in the additive sense. You are adding, or giving something the animals likes, or finds pleasurable, and this stimulus increases the likelihood a behavior will be repeated. When you give a dog a treat, or a sea lion a fish immediately after it does a desired behavior you have positively reinforced that behavior, and the animal is more likely to do it again under the same circumstances. Part of the job of the professional animal trainer working with exotics is figuring out what is positively reinforcing to the animal she’s trying to train. It might not always be food, although that is the most common positive reinforcer. But, what reinforces a dog is not likely to reinforce a porcupine.
Negative Reinforcement. Don’t cringe! This is often confused with punishment, but it is not. The word ‘negative’ is subtractive; something is removed, stopped or avoided. It is the absence of this stimulus that produces the desired behavior. How many of you use a leash and collar, and your dog walks calmly at the end of it? The collar and the pressure it exerts when the dog pulls at the end of the leash is an example of negative reinforcement. The dog is negatively reinforced when he stops pulling and the pressure is relieved. When the dog walks without pulling he avoids that pressure, and he is more likely to walk without pulling your arm off nicely at your side, giving you the desired behavior. It is impossible to put a leash and collar on a sea lion or a dolphin, but a cheetah or a wolf responds well to gentle pressure on a collar.
How is training an exotic animal, a dolphin, a sea lion or a wolf like training your dog? Key principles apply: you need to be consistent, you need an effective communication system, you need precise timing, and you need a lot of patience no matter what you are training. In this sense, training a dog is like training a sea lion is like training a porcupine.
How is training a sea lion not like training your dog? You will never share your home with a sea lion. I loved Disney’s ‘Sammy the Way Out Seal’ when I was kid, but believe me, you do not want one of these in your house.
If a sea lion quit on me during a show, you know what happened? Nothing. The sea lion swam in the moat until he was ready to pay attention again. I did my best to tap dance and the crowd enjoyed a good laugh. Hey, it happens. You review what caused the animal to quit, adapt and move on. Sometimes it was just because it was summer, the sea lion wasn’t hungry and he’d rather be on a beach with the ladies. It’s his biology and DNA telling him what to do, and my fish just wasn’t as reinforcing as the nice cool pool.
What happens if your dog eliminates in the house and you ignore it? Do you laugh? Exactly. We expect certain behaviors from our domestic animals that share our homes that are never taught to animals in zoos. And remember this, they’re domestic! They’re genetically programmed by centuries of breeding to be handled and trained by humans. Domestic animals are very malleable and adaptable to the application of behavior modification techniques, positive and negative reinforcement. The same cannot always be said of exotics.
Can you use a clicker to train your dog? Of course you can, or a whistle, or your iPod if you want to get really creative. Do I recommend it? Nope. The typical dog owner wants a pet that is well mannered, housebroken and knows a few commands. If the dog sits, lies down and comes on command the average dog owner is happy. These are very easy things to accomplish, no clickers necessary.
Ask yourself this: Do you really want to be sure you always have a clicker on you? Can you keep a pocket of treats always full? Remember, consistency is the key to good results in training, if you do not use that clicker accurately, you will confuse your dog. Clicker training is dependent on food reinforcement particularly in the early stages. You would have to adjust your dog’s feeding and limit treats or you could easily train your pet into obesity.
Where is clicker training helpful? Do you want to train your dog to this:
Isn’t that amazing? I don’t know what methods she used, but clicker training is a great way to get such precise, complex behaviors. How many hours every day would you willing to put in to get your dog to do what Rookie does? Most people are happy with a dog that walks at their side as they stroll through the neighborhood, naps quietly while they watch tv and doesn’t freak out when people come to visit. They’re not looking for a dance partner, they’re not looking to compete at dog sports. That is a whole other subject and realm of training. It can be a lot of fun, it builds a tremendously close bond between you and your dog, but it is also a huge time (not to mention money) commitment.
Dogs will respond beautifully if you give them love, and training, but that entails applying positive and negative reinforcement. The animals that live with us need to learn and respect the behavioral boundaries we establish. They need to follow these ‘rules’ all the time, which is the expectation most pet owners have. You want your dog to eliminate outside all the time, right?
But how do you know which reinforcement to apply and at what time? Stay tuned!