Thursday, December 2, 2010

Why I Love My Clicker

Crappy picture is crappy. But I didn't want to spend more
than five minutes shaping this behavior, so this is as good as it gets.

I’ve been thinking a lot about feedback this week. I’ve been thinking about Ian Dunbar’s approach to giving feedback. I’ve been thinking about the way I give feedback, and especially my own shortcomings in my rate of reinforcement. I’ve been thinking about how I react to criticism, and how my dog reacts to being told she’s wrong, too. And after thinking about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that I love my clicker.

Well, I already knew that. Most positive-reinforcement trainers use one. Even trainers who use collar corrections add in clicker work from time to time. It’s a great tool, which is why I was surprised that Ian seemed kind of anti-clicker during the seminar. It seemed to be about more than just the fact that he’s a pet dog person; his criticism of the clicker wasn’t about new students having difficulty with timing or misunderstanding the concept. Instead, he seemed to take issue with the feedback the clicker itself gives: impersonal, sterile, and devoid of emotion and instruction. But in a lot of ways, that’s exactly why I love it!

Is that weird? Maybe. After all, I do understand Ian’s point. All the clicker can do is say yes, you did that correctly. That’s it. It has one setting, one level, one message: yes. It can’t judge quality. It can’t say hey, that was even better than last time. Which is why I supplement the clicker with my voice sometimes, like I did in the chicken video. And if I’m going to do that, why should I bother using the clicker at all?

Because it’s different. Here’s the deal: our dogs hear our voices a lot. I talk to my husband, I talk on the phone, I talk to the cats, heck, I talk to myself. There are even toys that let us talk to our dogs when we’re gone! Of all the times that Maisy hears my voice, how often is it directed towards her? And even then, what percentage of that is meaningful communication versus me just chattering away at her because I love her? The vast majority of the time, my voice is simply background noise with little relevance to her life.

The clicker, on the other hand, is distinct. It’s easy to pick out of the sounds of day to day life because there isn’t anything else in the environment like it. More than that, though, it’s reliable and predictable. That sound always means something good is coming. It may only deliver one message, but that message is unambiguous, easy to understand, and worth paying attention to.

As a result, the clicker is able to get through to my dog much easier than my voice can. When Maisy is distracted or excited, she tends to tune me out. I can almost hear her sometimes: yeah, yeah, I know you’re talking, mom, but right now I’m concentrating so much on those chickens that I can’t be bothered to figure out if your words are for me or not. The beauty of the clicker is that she doesn’t need to think about it at all. She just knows that it’s for her.

Granted, this response happens because the clicker is a conditioned stimulus, not because it’s magic. Any sound can be conditioned the same way, including our voices. In fact, most clicker trainers have a verbal marker that they use, too. However, Lindsay Wood’s thesis found that it takes longer to train a behavior with a verbal marker than with a clicker.

In short, I’ve found that the clicker just relays the message better than my voice does. Of course, that’s still just one message. No matter how good it is at it, it can still only say one thing. I know that Ian really likes to say both yes and no, but honestly? I don’t. It’s not that I necessarily object to saying no- I understand that you need to inhibit behavior sometimes- but I prefer to focus on what’s going well.

I’m a sensitive person. As much as I learn from criticism, as much as I need it and want it, my ego is fragile. I do much better when I’m given positive feedback most of the time. The trainer that Maisy and I work with now is excellent at this, and when I fail, the positive feedback she’s given me previously is able to offset the current negative feedback. It helps me from taking it too personally, and the end result is that I feel generally confident in my abilities and I’m more willing to take risks, even if they might end in an error.

Maisy’s very sensitive, too, so I think she might feel the same way about negative feedback. But even if she doesn’t, and even if my next dog isn’t as soft as her, I know that I’m just not good at giving negative feedback. When I experimented with no reward markers earlier this year, I learned that when I have permission to say no, I quit saying yes. I become frustrated with my dog and with myself. Obviously, this does not help our training.

True, the clicker is just a tool, and like any tool, it has both good points and bad points. But for me, the clicker forces me to focus on the positive. It keeps me on track. It makes me look for success instead of dwell on failure. And most importantly, it builds up my confidence, Maisy’s confidence, and our confidence in one another.

And that’s why I love my clicker.


Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

You know I love the clicker! But I also think of Susan Garret and how she believes that is really isn't needed for most of the things you train. She thinks of it like a scalpel and saves it for really difficult moves to pinpoint, the majority of things she uses her verbal marker.

I personally use it when teaching almost every new trick, and stop using it once the dog knows it. But sometimes I wonder if I am actually hindering progress due to timing issues. Like most people I tend to click late, so is that precision used against me? Unlike Susan Garrett I don't think that using the clicker for everything will dullen it's precision and make it less useful in the future. But maybe the pinpoint moment the clicker has makes it take longer to learn some tricks due to my timing issues rather than if I used the less precise verbal word?

Crystal said...

I think I use the clicker a lot like you- I use it in the teaching stages, or when I need to tune up a behavior.

I also use it depending on Maisy's arousal levels- there is an optimal level in there in which it works best. When she's excited, it can help cut through the fog of distraction. On the other hand, the clicker can send her over the top, so I need to be careful not to use the clicker when I want her calmer. It's a difficult thing to balance.

I am fortunate to have pretty good timing, or at least, so I've been told by better trainers. Even so, sometimes Maisy is faster than me... I have somehow shaped a very cute paw lift when she takes the dumbbell, although I guess I'm not sure if that's due to misclicks or due to my body language. I think it's primarily the latter (I need to clean up my body language BIG TIME), but then reinforced by the former.

I think you're right that timing issues can slow down learning, but I've certainly seen dogs figuring it out despite horrendous timing. It's pretty amazing how smart dogs can be, actually.

Regardless of whether I'm using a clicker or a verbal marker, I find that the clicker-mindset serves me best. It's the orientation in how I approach training that really determines our results.

Robin Sallie said...

Maisy has serious clicker love, too. I THINK that is why she sometimes goes over the top.

Crystal said...

I agree, Robin. She LOVES to train... no wait, she loves to earn treats... anyway, I do think that's why the clicker gets her so excited.

Kristen said...

That's beautiful! You should get it published...ahem!!!

Ninso said...

I agree. I find the clicker to be a lot more clear and precise than my verbal markers, which vary in pitch, tone, and enthusiasm--which might be a good thing in some cases. It depends on what I'm working and what my goal is, but I use both. And I think that when you are using a clicker, you actually CAN give feedback about degree of correctness through the reward--more or less treats, more or less enthusiastic praise, etc. Maybe it doesn't have the same impact, I don't know. But IME, the more complex the beahvior I want, the more I prefer my clicker.

trillium said...

I use a clicker with one dog, and a verbal "click" with the other dog, mostly because it allows me to train them in the same proximity. However, peanut didn't appear to respond well to the clicker. I think because it delivers one message (like you said) and she needs more constant feedback. It's much more effective for her to have more of a hot/cold feedback. Although she's so soft that I never actually say no it's more like a whisper or whoosh sound which can quickly become a "click" when she gets it. If she isn't getting fairly constant feedback she just starts throwing out behaviours hoping to hit on one that will get her a reward. Which isn't typically what I want. There are words that I only use for the dogs though and I think they can pick them out from the babble. For instance if I'm talking on the phone to my Grandmother about taking her for a ride, both dogs will go sit on the mat by the front door ready to leave. I also cant use the word "cheese" or I get mobbed ;) although I think they are starting to figure out "dairy product" or it might just be the wrapper from the string cheese. Either way I think they listen to the babble and pull out the parts that are relevant to them or are potential reinforcers, much like I'm sure Bill actively listens when I tell him all about my day. He nods and makes reassuring noises after all.

Crystal said...

Ninso, I was thinking about jackpots the other day. I use them, but I have no idea if they work. I don't know if they speed up training or not, but they do seem to increase enthusiasm... and maybe THAT helps the dog? I don't know.

Trillium, That's very interesting that Peanut does well with both hot and cold. Most people say their dogs do better with just one, so it's neat to hear about a dog who likes both.

Kristine said...

I love reading your thoughts on these issues. You organise them so much better than I ever could.

My clicker timing and handling were sloppy back when I first started out. Throughout the first couple of obedience classes we took I kept dropping it and forgetting to use it. The trainer eventually, she was probably exasperated, told me to switch to using a word instead. But I've been wondering if she and I gave up too easily on my clicking skills. Like you, I am sensitive and respond much better to positive reinforcement than negative. :-)

It's something I'd like to give a shot again as I agree with you that the precision of a clicker is much sharper than any verbal sound. While my dog is amazingly good at shaping, I think a clicker may help us communicate that much easier. Is it too late to start with her again? Should I wait for my next dog?

Crystal said...

Kristine, I don't think it's too late, although you might want to practice using the clicker without your dog at first. There is definitely a physical skill involved in handling a clicker and treats, plus timing.

I've played timing games (without my dog, of course)- like, when watching TV, click everytime a character says a certain word or does a certain action (touches a doorknob, sits down, etc.). Bonus points if you practice holding treats and "feeding" a cup by putting them in a containter or something.

Start with silly or unimportant behaviors when you begin clicking with your dog again. That way if you screw it up (unlikely, but to be safe), it won't matter. But, if you wait for your next dog, well, your skills won't be any better. Might as well try now!

trillium said...

I'm taking a nose games seminar in a few months and I think its going to be interesting. She's got a short boxer nose, and definitely tends towards being a sight hound more like a greyhound, so I think already knowing and responding well to hot/cold will work to her advantage in figuring out the game. I think it helps her (but granted she is an odd dog) that her cues are so softly delivered. She really has to listen or she misses it.

Ninso said...

Re: jackpots, in my experience, I DO think they work sometimes, though it's possible it could be just coincidence. I will usually jackpot big steps in the right direction when shaping. Sometimes it seems to work, sometimes it just seems to be a bigger pause to eat that takes the dog's mind away from some really good thinking they were doing, then it takes awhile to get back on track. I think where they work best is to increase enthusiasm for behaviors the dog is not sure about. I'm using them right now for Jun to teach a "bow." She knows it and likes it, but isn't comfortable doing it on the new cue I'm using, so I'm jackpotting correct responses to try to build a positive association.