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Digging and Popping since 2000


                                    WHY BOTHER WITH A CLICKER ?


I feel like a kite on the other side of Biskit’s leash.  My Norwich Terrier is pulling with the force that defies the fact that he is about 10 times smaller than I am.  He is determined to dance across the parking lot in a split second.  The object of his excitement is a field where we practice “clicker training”. What is so exciting about that?

To most “clicker training” means a use of a clicker, a crude plastic box with a metal blade making a quick clicking sound, as a marker of a desired behavior.  Understood this way clicker is just a tool in whatever training method you are using.  Clicker training as true blue operant conditioning is a training philosophy.  It is a slow process of baking a perfect pie, creating a learner with zest for learning.  Yes, I do mean doggy learner, with his ears and tail all the way up, Norwich and Norfolk alike.

Nobody questions a relevance of a strong and healthy self-esteem as a factor in education, human that is.  Yet, when you mention building dog’s self-esteem you are at a great risk of being written off in many people’s minds as gone over the edge.  So here are the two cents from one gone over the edge.

In one of my previous lives (no, I’m not that over the edge; I mean previous careers) I was a teacher at a college.  I had a first hand experience of seeing that teaching is nothing more or less than aiding the learning process.  You can spoon feed a series of facts into anybody but you cannot make them truly comprehend and internalize the knowledge.  You can, however, help them to learn.  You can motivate somebody to learn.  They have to do the learning if the knowledge is to stay.

Clicker training, viewed as education, or a training philosophy if you will, is a comprehensive approach that has the shaping of a learner at its heart.  It is teaching the dog to FIGURE OUT the desired skill and only then to perform it.  This is not some puritan fixation that some of us have.  It is a fundamental difference between operant conditioning and using a plastic clicking box while training.  If you are not letting your dog figure out what it is that you are teaching him to do, why bother with a clicker at all?  I personally don’t see a significant difference between saying “good boy” and making a clicker go “click”. They both mean the same.  They both mean you got it.  You did as I intended you to.

Teaching your dog to figure things out may actually take longer than just yanking him or luring him into the skill.  Let’s take “sit” as an example.  I am not so sure that waiting for your dog to sit spontaneously and then clicking and treating him, then repeating it until he reliably gets it, is a fast process. What I do know is that your dog is learning much more than “sit”.  First and foremost the dog is learning that he is earning the clicks and the treats that follow.  He is learning that the process is fun.  He is learning that he always wins. There are no blows to avoid, no need to sniff the ground in stress.  He is learning to learn.

It is so tempting to lead your dog by the collar to a new skill.  It is quite difficult to let him figure it out.  If you drop the reigns, you are shaping your dog’s self-esteem.  You are empowering him to earn the clicks.  You are playing the fair game where you don’t praise mediocre performance but a true achievement of putting the puzzle together, breaking the secret code, finding the key to the treasure trove, the bait bag.  But please expect to be a kite on the other end of the lash until your empowered learner gets it that the leash should be loose.

Originally published in Ups and Downs, a publication of The Chesapeake Norwich and Norfolk Terrier Club