To click or not to click, the how to train question

By Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved.

What is the best way to train a dog? Do you use positive reinforcement? Or be a pack leader? Or, ask your dog to imitate you (seriously, it’s the latest thing)? Ask three different people and chances are you get three different answers. Ask three different dog trainers and it probably gets even more confusing. And what if you don’t want your dog to work only for food? Isn’t that bribery? But should anyone work for free anyway? Don’t pack leaders make sense to wolves and not dogs? And how is a dog supposed to imitate you anyway? Debates on the ideal method to teach a dog manners for a human world range from which of the latest theories and techniques to use, with the largest divide falling on whether to employ force or not. How exactly do you make sense of it all?

There is science on what works best. There is a lot of science, the latest research continues to show positive training methods to be the most effective and humane. In spite of this, force and punishment are still chosen by some for immediate, if not lasting, “results” and “balance” or because dogs- at least to certain minds, being “just dogs” don’t merit more considerate training styles. Those drawn to humane methods may find even that formula may not narrow it down much. The latest protocols in positive dog training are each one supposedly better than the next in terms of effectiveness, whether through the use of words as opposed to clicks, or silence, or body language or eye contact or none at all.

Who endorses what protocol can be even more important. Consumers respond to trainers and behaviorists more on personal magnetism than scientific credibility. As scientist and behavior expert, James Serpell says” "We're much more impressed with charismatic media figures than scientists who are thoughtful and methodical." And dog training is a booming business for those wanting to find services, decide to be or learn how to become a trainer, or be part of an “in” crowd of the method and trainer of the moment. Cesar Milan’s much disputed dominance theories and inhumane applications may have set dog training back 50 years but there is no denying his ardent followers embracing his techniques or his media success.

“Clicker training” - manipulating a device to make a sound to “mark” the moment when a dog performs a requested behavior followed by a reward – is also having a moment in all this. The popularity of using a clicker to train is on the rise with online training academies and even conventions devoted to their use (it is reported that more than 1400 participants attended “Clicker Expo” in 2016). And the gadgets to use and buy- each method comes with the “best and only” equipment clickers, collars, halters, harnesses, leashes, shirts, wraps, brushes, buckets, automatic treat dispensers, remote sensors and toys. Settle on what sort of training you should be doing and the devil in the details of who to follow and what you should be using to do it, guarantees complications. It can feel as if only with the latest and greatest gear, can we do the best job at training. But gadgets and personas don’t train dogs, people do. Or do they?

Clickers or other event markers of behavior are believed to function as a link, marking an event acoustically with the reinforcement to follow (“bridging stimulus” or “secondary reinforcer”). To fully appreciate how the device fits in to dog training, it is useful to look at the origin of acoustic signals in laboratory studies- scientific studies looking at stimulus and response in associative learning relied on automatic signals to mark an event or to signal when a reward would arrive to reinforce a desired behavior. These experiments were designed specifically to eliminate any human interaction to muddy the waters of what an animal was responding to. Robotic, neutral signal were preferred. Animal trainers working out of sight or distance also found the devices useful (clicker trainer founder, Karen Pryor was a former marine mammal trainer). However, out of the laboratories and next to our dogs, in the very real world of how dogs learn with owners, trainers and environments we find little, if anything, that is neutral or robotic.

When it comes to how animals learn, there is no one way. All animals learn in a variety of ways though trial and error, by association, through insight and socially. Most of conventional dog training whether utilizing force or reward relies on associative learning. Even so, dogs are wonderful social learners, learning ably from both other dogs and humans. How we interact with dogs also impacts how well they learn and perform for us. A recent study by Drs. Jamesion, Baxter and Murray examining the relationships of working dogs and their handlers, found that rates of accurate results in detection dogs rose with familiar handlers and positive relationships. Our relationships with our animals are so significant and prized that setting up a rival for our attention is a particularly effective training method using social learning. Alex, the famous parrot, was taught via the “Model/ Rival Method” wherein a human rival for his owner’s attention would perform/ model a requested behavior for Alex to perform.

Social learning can also be used to teach an “imitation rule” for dogs to follow with our own selves as the model. Scientists Claudia Fugazza and Adam Miklosi published their “Do as I do” method of training in a 2015 paper. The technique, consisting of first gaining a dog’s attention using eye contact and language, demonstrating the behavior requested, giving a “Do It!” command (repeating these steps as needed) and marking/ thanking/informing with praise or food or petting as a reward was found to be “more efficient than shaping/clicker training for teaching dogs complex object- related tasks and goal directed sequences of actions.” In a more recent study, in 2018, the researchers showed that puppies learn most ably from humans who make eye contact and speak to the dogs before demonstrating a new behavior to copy and from watching unknown puppies (as opposed to their mothers) perform behaviors- No matter the species, watching someone new is apparently more interesting than listening to mom.

If you live with a dog, no doubt, you already know just how much our dogs learn through observation or social learning. And if you have more than one dog at home you have constant evidence of what they are learning from each other. And there’s a reason we are all spelling out words like “walk” “car” and “dog park” and “beach” around the dog. What about hundreds and hundreds of words? There’s Chaser, the border collie who Dr. John Pilley taught over 1,0000 words. Pilley’s paper on Chaser outlined his method of training: call Chaser by name, hold up an object and repeat the name of the object 4-5 times. In a phone interview, shortly after the paper came out, Dr. Pilley told me Chaser’s appetite for learning was inexhaustible, at times more than her human teachers could respond to. (continued below)