It came as no surprise that Suzanne considers herself a humane trainer. I knew that by reading her book, by the fact that she calls her method “relationship centered,” and by the observation that the positive training community has rallied around her. So, I was completely unprepared for what she said next:
“All positive training is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard.”
Come again? Aren’t you for training our dogs in positive ways? What do you mean, it’s “stupid”? Needless to say, this statement really set me reeling. But you know what? She had some valid criticisms, and I think it’s important that as clicker trainers, we consider what she says, and find ways to improve our training as a result. Again, my understanding of her criticisms are my own, based on stray comments she made. This entry cannot be considered a complete commentary, and I only hope that it’s accurate. That said, in reviewing my notes, I found four ways we often go wrong:
Clicker Trainers are Too Cerebral
As I mentioned previously, Suzanne believes that consequences are useful in training dogs. Although I disagree with some of the consequences she believes are acceptable, I do concede that they can have a place in a thoughtful training program, and I’ve since found some ways to improve my training with Maisy as the result of using them.
The problem is, clicker trainers sometimes shy away from consequences entirely because we’re thinking too much. I know I fell into this category! When I was considering a consequence, I would think about which of the operant conditioning quadrants it fell in. If it fell in the “wrong” quadrant, I wouldn’t do it. Instead, Suzanne encouraged us to look at our dogs, and to decide if the consequence is humane or not. As long as we aren’t hurting or scaring our dogs, we’re probably okay.Instead of thinking about our actions based on some chart, we’re better off thinking about our dog.
Clicker Dogs Have No Impulse Control
Okay, this is a bit of an over-exaggeration of what she said, so don’t go around quoting this verbatim. What Suzanne actually said is that when she sees a dog throwing behaviors, she knows two things: it was clicker trained, and it has low impulse control. This does not mean that all clicker dogs struggle with impulse control, but it can be a by-product of the training method if we don’t get adequate stimulus control over the behaviors we teach our dog, and if we don’t take the time to teach our dogs how to relax.
I love having a dog who wants to work, but sometimes I think I’ve created a monster because I haven’t worked that much on teaching her how to just be. Sometimes, I don’t use the clicker at all because it is creates too much arousal. She loves it so much that she loses control over herself.
Clicker Trainers Micromanage Their Dogs With Cookies
There are two sub-points here. First, clicker trainers tend to rely too much on management, and don’t spend enough time teaching their dogs to be responsible for themselves. (I wrote about this previously in this entry.)
Second, clicker trainers tend to rely on cookies far too much. Suzanne is not against cookies, she just thinks we need branch out. She said that what we really need to do is harness intrinsic motivation. We need to teach our dog to work for other things. Life rewards such as getting to go for a walk or using play as a reinforcer fits here, but Suzanne is big on using praise and the social relationship as a reinforcer, too. Cookies are great, but they’re the icing on the cake of social relationships.
Clicker Trainers Rely on “Recipes” Too Much
Finally, Suzanne was critical of clicker training because it can result in the handler treating the dog like a computer: we train them based on stimulus and response, or input and output. We would find it insulting to be treated this way, so why wouldn’t our dogs? Instead, we need to see the whole animal, and tailor our plans to their needs and preferences. Even counter conditioning will fail, she said, if we don’t keep the dog safe. Training recipes might be a nice starting point, but we need to go beyond them.
As I mentioned, I know I fall in the “think too much” category. I also recognize that my use of the clicker could have contributed to Maisy’s impulse control problems, because I'm just not that good at getting things under stimulus control. So far as micromanaging with cookies… well, guilty again. I do rely a lot on management, and I’m just learning how to use things other than food as a reinforcer. I think I am safe on the last point; but I think my strength lies in being able to evaluate various “recipes” and tweak them so that they work to both Maisy’s strengths and my own.
So, fellow clicker trainers, do you recognize yourself in any of these descriptions? If so, what are you going to do to improve your training?