The clicker training method is based on marking and strengthening the behaviors we want. A clicker is used to mark selected behaviors. It is a small box with a plate which, when pressed, produces a characteristic sound. One of the advantages of the clicker method is that we do not use any physical or mental pressure on the dog. We can also teach the dog to carry out new commands remotely. You can read more about the clicker method in my post Clicker method – how to start? Today I wanted to focus on the 10 most common mistakes in clicker training.
At first, the clicker sound is something neutral for the dog. It’s just another sound that occurs in the environment and means little to the dog. So we can’t buy a clicker and start training the dog with new commands right away. In order for the clicker sound to become a prize announcing marker, we must first condition it. Conditioning the clicker is very simple. All you have to do is give your dog a reward with each click. During conditioning, we do not expect any particular behavior from the dog. We just want to pair the click stimulus with the reward. After a few short series of conditioning, you can usually see that the dog is expecting a reward after hearing the telltale clicker sound. This is a clear signal that the clicker has been conditioned and that we can start working with this tool.
A clicker is a very precise tool that allows you to select exactly the behavior you want. The problem arises, however, when we have poor reflexes and click too fast or too late. Poor timing causes us to send the dog the wrong signals. It is difficult for him to find out which behavior we mark and reward. This can lead to a lot of confusion and a lot of frustration for the dog. Such training will be ineffective. So, before you start using the clicker while training your dog, it’s a good idea to practice dry. You can drop the ball to the ground and try to click exactly when the ball touches the floor. You can also toss the ball up and mark the moment when the ball is highest with the clicker. I also recommend exercises with an assistant who, for example, can tap a finger on the wall, and you can click this behavior with a clicker.
Some people use a clicker to get a dog’s attention or to call it to them. When we condition the clicker sound well and the dog already has a long history of amplification associated with it, it will of course respond enthusiastically to the sound. However, we cannot use the clicker as a command. A click should always be a signal to the dog that it has done something right and that its reward is about to come.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the clicker sound should be a neutral signal for the dog. However, there are dogs that are extremely sensitive to sound stimuli and are simply afraid of this sound. If you have such a dog, you cannot train with him with the help of a classic clicker. Changing a dog’s association with its sound to neutral or even positive may prove to be too difficult. The alternative is to use a clicker, which makes a quieter sound, or to use a marker in the form of a short voiced word, eg “yes”.
One of the basic principles of training a dog with a clicker is that there must always be a reward after each click. Even if we sometimes make a mistake and click at the wrong time, or if we accidentally select the wrong behavior that we want to teach the dog. The dog should not be held responsible for our mistakes. If we do not give the dog a reward after clicking, we will weaken the clicker. Over time, its sound will cease to be of any importance to the dog and will lose its usefulness in training the dog.
Another principle of clicker training is that the behavior that we select with a clicker must always appear first, and then the reward should appear. Dogs can be very fast, so catching all the desired behaviors is not that easy and requires a lot of reflexes. Additionally, we often want to provide the dog with a reward as quickly as possible, so that he can associate it with his behavior. As a result, it may happen that the dog shows a behavior, our hand starts reaching for the treat and only then clicks. If we repeat this pattern several times, the dog will quickly learn that the announcement of the reward is not really the clicker sound, but the movement of the hand towards the treats. Of course, this will weaken the clicker’s performance over time. To avoid this mistake, I recommend keeping the treat container a little further apart. Thanks to this, in order to reward your dog with a reward, you have to get up, take a step or two, and then reach for the treat.
At the beginning of learning a new command, we should give the dog a lot of feedback when it is going in the right direction. However, it may happen that for a long time the dog will not display any behavior that we could mark and reward. Long breaks like these without clicking or being rewarded can be very frustrating for a dog. The doggy has no idea what we mean and what he has to do to get the award. In such a situation, it is best to stop training and think about changing your strategy. Perhaps we are asking too much of the dog and need to break down the behavior into even smaller pieces? Or maybe you will have to consider a complete change of the criteria that we click?
Another common mistake is clicking repeatedly for the same behavior and not raising the bar for the dog. If we teach the dog to lie down, at the very beginning we can mark and reward a slight deflection of the front paws. As soon as we manage to achieve this, we should choose and reward only such bending of the paws that lead, for example, to the chest touching the ground. So we are changing the criteria. We no longer click on the deflection of the front paws, but touch the floor with the chest. If we stop there, the dog will think that this is the target behavior. So he will not try to bend his paws more and put his buttocks on the ground, because this is not what he is rewarded for. So we will get a beautiful bow, not a lying position. Raising the bar too quickly will make the dog confused and will not know what we mean. On the other hand, not raising it at all and constantly rewarding it for the same, will make it never progress.
The training session cannot be too long. It is difficult to come up with one correct length of session that will work for all dogs. Much depends on the dog’s age, health, ability to concentrate on the task, motivation or emotions. In some dogs, the session should last several seconds, in others – a few minutes. Of course, prolonging training sessions indefinitely can lead to mental fatigue in the dog. It can also be frustrating or over-agitated your dog. All this worsens his cognitive abilities and makes training less effective. Training with a clicker is also very demanding for you as trainers. You have to be very focused on what your dog is doing, picking up, marking and rewarding the right behaviors at the right times. With too long training sessions, not only your dogs’ concentration deteriorates, but also yours. So it is definitely better to do too short sessions than prolong them too long. I know that during clicker training, keeping track of the length of the session is particularly difficult. We focus on the dog and on clicking at the right moment and giving him a prize. At the same time, we stop paying attention to the passing time. When the dog starts to do something, we want to do one more repetition and one more … and finally there are too many repetitions.
Dog training can be divided into three stages. The first is the obtaining of preservation stage. At this stage, we train the dog to perform a given behavior on our verbal command or gesture. Then we have the behavioral consolidation stage in which we train the dog to obey the command in various distractions and situations. The third step is to maintain the behavior, that is, from time to time remind the dog of the previously learned behavior. The clicker is useful in the first stage of training, which is obtaining behavior. It helps us clearly and precisely explain the behavior to the dog. However, once we have obtained the behavior and teach the dog to perform it on a verbal command or gesture, there is no reason to continue using the clicker in the next stages of learning. Using this tool for too long can make the dog stop trying and start obeying the command more and more carelessly.
Of course, there are many more training mistakes that can be made when working with a dog. In this post, I tried to focus on errors related directly to the clicker method training. I am very curious, which of these mistakes you made, and maybe you still do? I recommend recording and analyzing your training sessions here. When we look at ourselves from the outside, we can see many more mistakes. Or maybe you make other mistakes that I have not listed here, and about which you would like to warn others?