By Sarah Fulcher, Cert. CBST
Positive reinforcement training, also commonly called clicker training, positive training, dog-friendly training, force free training, or reward-based training, is a system for working with dogs and other animals in which the focus is on rewarding the animal for things that we like as opposed to punishing or “correcting” the animal when they do something we don’t like. This makes a lot of sense because while there is only one way for the animal to get it right, there are an infinite numbers of ways that they can get it wrong. I personally don’t believe in purely ignoring what we don’t like and rewarding what we do like – while rewarding what we do like is extremely powerful, sometimes you may have to apply negative consequences. The thing is these consequences do not have to involve fear, pain, or intimidation. The purpose of positive dog training is not to necessarily eliminate punishment and negative consequence, but to minimize their use and when they are used, they are as mild as possible. Those tools are still in the toolbox, but they are at the bottom. If you have enough tools on the top, they rarely, if ever, have to come out.
Perhaps most importantly, this type of training takes into account first and foremost the animal’s feelings. There are some real benefits to this training system: it creates an excellent relationship, builds a strong bond between you and your animal and allows you to educate your dog so he can be well behaved without breaking its spirit or turning it “into a robot”. You do not have to be mean or physically dominating to your pet – this means soft spoken people, disabled people, elderly people, and even young children can be successful with this training technology. One of my favourite things about teaching and training this way is the focus is on teaching the dog self control rather than external control. This means the dog understands what is expected and has the internal control to make the correct choice in many different situations. Compare this to external control where the dog only knows to obey when he is given a command – the dog can be otherwise unruly or shut down in fear of getting a correction or is dependent on some sort of training collar to be controlled.
Sounds great, right? It’s not as easy as it sounds, as using this type of training system requires people to be proactive and forward thinking in their training plans instead of reactive and punitive. It requires us to use our brains! Conflicting with a lot of popular mis-information about dogs and dog training, there is a lot of public misconception about positive reinforcement as a training and behaviour modification technology. Through this article, I am going to explore and explain some of the common myths about positive training and clicker training that are prominent today.
The aim of a positive reinforcement based training system is to be as positive for the learner and as low stress and least aversive as possible. Good positive training, however, is not permissive. Rules, structure, leadership, and boundaries are all very important but instead of waiting for the animal to get it wrong and punishing them, a good positive trainer will set the dog up for success. This is done by developing a reward-based training program to educate the animal on exactly what is expected of them and by managing the environment so that the dog is not put into a position where they will likely misbehave. If you want your dog not to beg at the table, you can teach him a “go to your place” cue and ask him to remain on his dog bed or in his crate while you eat meals. An example of managing the environment is crate training a puppy so that it can be safely confined when you cannot supervise to prevent house soiling accidents or inappropriate chewing – this is in contrast to giving the puppy too much freedom and then scolding him for having an accident or chewing on the coffee table.
What do you do when your dog is engaging in a behaviour you don’t like? Don’t you have to tell a dog “no” or correct him so he knows it is wrong? If you are in this situation there are a few options a positive trainer would probably use, bearing in mind we are aiming at being as low-stress and as positive as possible while understanding that negative consequences sometimes may be necessary. If the behaviour is not going to hurt anyone or damage anything and is likely to be rewarded by attention from you then ignoring it is the best option. Ignoring the behaviour will mean it will probably just disappear as the dog will learn it doesn’t work to get him what he wants. If you simply can’t ignore it, (the dog is getting into the garbage or chewing on your iPhone) then you can interrupt and redirect it. To do this you get your dog’s attention by pleasantly calling its name or making a funny sound, (a kissing noise, whistle, or clap) ask him to sit for 3-5 seconds and then praise and give him a treat if you have one handy. You can then redirect his energy on to something appropriate like chewing one of his toys. If all else fails, a short time out in the crate or on a tether station is an effective, humane punishment. Our attention is very valuable to our dogs and turning it off when they do things we dislike sends an extremely powerful message. Just because it is not physical, does not mean it is not effective – in fact it is often the opposite.
It is also very common to hear that reward based training is bribery or the dog is not working for you – it is working for the treat or toy. Make no mistake, all animals are governed by the same behavioural laws – your dog is either working for something he likes: a treat, a toy, attention from you, something exciting in the environment; or he is working to avoid something he dislikes: a collar correction, a shock from an electronic collar, physical or verbal discipline. People who make this type of comment often misleadingly think their dog is working out of respect for them or that their praise is enough of a reward for the dog. In all reality the dog is probably working to escape the unpleasant punishment inflicted by the handler and the praise is a comfort that no correction will come its way. Attempt to train a dog using only praise as a reward without corrections and you will see how generally ineffective it is for most dogs especially under high distraction. While dogs do enjoy our attention (some value it more than others) and it can be used at times as an appropriate reward especially after a foundation has been laid, there is nothing wrong with using food and toys in training and it’s not bribery when used thoughtfully. If the food or toy is not visible and the dog’s behaviour makes the reward appear, that is like a pay check for doing a good job. Bribery is producing the treat or toy before the dog does anything and using the presence of the reward to influence the dog’s behaviour. You have to feed your dog every day any ways, so why not use it as a training reward? Would you still go to work every day if you didn’t get a pay check?
Reward based training systems are now becoming very popular ways to train many working dogs including police dogs, gun dogs, Schutzhund dogs, high level obedience competition dogs, search and rescue, military work, and service and guide dogs. It has been found that this training system works very quickly and produces a high reliability of behaviour even in very high drive dogs such as the belgian shepherd, border collie, or german shepherd.
Skilled trainers also very successfully use positive reinforcement based training to rehabilitate aggressive and fearful dogs, like my friend and colleague Diane Garrod of Canine Transformations Learning Centre who specializes in rehabilitating aggressive dogs with positive methods. I also specialize myself, and have been very successful, training reactive, fearful, and aggressive dogs without harsh methods.
Clicker training is very popular for dog sports like agility and flyball as well. It also works very well for traditionally non-trainable, independent or “stubborn” dog breeds as it fosters education through teamwork instead of force and punishment which appeals to these types of dogs.
Positive training works very well to train high reliability under distractions and in real life situations. Check out this video of my siberian husky Nick loose leash walking – as real life as it gets. Have you ever heard that huskies can NEVER be taught not to pull? Positive training breaks all the rules.
As discussed above, positive training and clicker training are now becoming popular and wide spread methods to train all sorts of behaviours from pet manners to tricks to police dogs. It is also a great technology for rehabilitating aggressive or fearful dogs if the trainer is skilled. Clickers are a small tool that makes a unique sound and are used commonly as a conditioned reinforcer in animal training. The sound is repeatedly paired with a reward. Very quickly when the animal hears the sound it understands that what it is doing at that moment is what is earning it the reward.
Clickers and markers are not just gimmicks – they allow for extreme precision and accuracy in training, allow you to have rewards hidden and still communicate to the animal exactly when they did the right thing, allow you to pinpoint behaviours you want to reward even if you are far away, and work very well for dogs who are not extremely handler focused since the noise stands out in the environment. There is plenty of scientific evidence to back up the use of a clicker or marker in animal training including research that shows that a unique marker noise like a click actually forms new neural pathways in the animal’s brain.
Clickers or markers are used to teach all sorts of behaviours to a wide array of species from crabs and birds to gorillas and whales. The technology is used to teach zoo animals to perform medical tasks voluntarily and has even been adapted into a system called TAG Teach which is used to teach people. Clicker training works very well to train independent dogs like spitz breeds or hounds, which are commonly considered untrainable by those who practice traditional training methods. Yes, you can even clicker train your cat.
There is absolutely no scientific evidence to support this claim made by some trainers and in 12 years of training dogs I have personally only seen the opposite. Using food skillfully in training does not increase aggression or food aggression in dogs. One of the first things you can teach your dog is to have self control around food in hands, on the ground, on counters etc. Using food in training can actually teach your dog to have amazing self control around food, not make it food aggressive.
When the training is done properly and in completion this should not be the case. The use of a clicker or marker can greatly aid in reaching this level of training as it allows the food or toy to be hidden but you can still communicate to the dog exactly what they have done that is earning them the reward. If the food is always hidden and the dog learns that it’s proper response to cues may earn him the reward, they will listen regardless of whether or not you are carrying treats on you.
It is even more difficult to wean a dog off of a shock, prong, or choke collar then it is to wean off training rewards. The dog understands quickly that the presence of the collar or tool is what causes the aversive stimulus. Training collars only suppress unwanted behaviour, not train an alternative. Therefore, once removed the behaviour may sooner or later resurface since the dog has never been taught to do anything different, or given a reason to do anything different, after all.
A good training plan will also include a variety of rewards such as play or real-life rewards like being released back to running after a recall. Watch this video of my siberian husky Nick demonstrating his excellent recall under high distraction. I am not giving him any treats, nor do I have any on me – his reward is being released. Note: I made this video because someone told me I could NEVER have trained a siberian husky to high level off leash “real life” recall around distractions without using a shock collar and without having food on me.
Part of the reason clicker and positive reinforcement based training is becoming so popular for training working dogs is that it is actually much faster. Trainers who have made the switch have found that what would have taken 18 months under traditional systems takes around 6 months to teach with clicker and reinforcement based training. That’s cutting training time down by two thirds!
Clicker training also works very fast to teach companion animal manners and fix behavioural problems. Often the results of one short ten minute training session can be staggering. For example, after a month of heavy rain, our three year old siberian husky developed an intense aversion to going to the bathroom in our yard. After being frustrated with his complete refusal to potty outdoors for several weeks, we decided on a different strategy. My husband watching him go to the bathroom in the yard, and then promptly gave him his favourite treat. It took 2-3 repetitions of this for him to use the yard to potty with enthusiasm. Once he was doing this easily, we stopped giving him treats every time, and shortly weaned them off all together. He is still having no problems going outside, despite the fact his food rewards have been faded.
I supposed if someone was not a very good trainer this could be true, but a skilled positive reinforcement trainer does not just throw treats around willy nilly. All reinforcements are carefully thought out and planned, and the animal must earn each reward by doing something desirable. Treats are also not the only rewards utilized in a good positive training program: toys, play time, human attention, the chance to play with other dogs, chase squirrels, run free, and to go outside are just a few examples of a multitude of rewards a good positive reinforcement trainer might use to reward behaviour they like.
Hang around an agility trial for a few hours and you will likely see a lot of tug of war games going on. Tug is an excellent reward for dogs who like to play. It is actually a preferred reward for many trainers once the dog understands a cue since it builds enthusiasm and speed for behaviours. Tug should be played with some ground rules: the game starts and stops with you, your dog should do something like sit or down to earn a chance to play, your dog should be taught to let go or drop it on command, if teeth touch human skin the game ends immediately, and if your dog starts growling it is time to take a break. There are also ways to tug with your dog that will be a lot healthier for your back especially if you have a strong dog. Follow the rules and tug will not make your dog aggressive – and you will have an amazing training tool at your disposal. Remember too, that you are the key to this game for your dog which gives you leverage to ensure he plays by the rules – he can’t play tug alone!
It is easy to use food in training and keep your dog from gaining any extra calories and therefore gaining weight. The majority of food used in training can come from the dog’s rationed meals which would normally be fed out of a bowl. Measure out the dog’s daily feeding amount, use what you need for training and feed the rest. If you use all of their daily rations in training this is even better! If you are using higher value treats for higher distraction areas, just cut back a bit on how much your dog is getting for meals in the day and your dog should not gain any weight. It’s as easy as that!
There is no doubt there are a lot of bad dog trainers out there utilizing a myriad of methods. There are good and bad trainers who train with food, and there are good and bad trainers who train with more traditional methods. The key is finding a trainer certified through a reputable organization who uses methods you are comfortable with who has experience to help you with the problem you need. The best pet manners trainer in the world may not have the know how to help your fearful or aggressive dog. Friends might recommend someone who uses techniques that make you uncomfortable – go with your gut. You should be able to watch a class before you enroll. Ask for references. If anything makes you uncomfortable, keep looking.
I choose this way of training because it fits my ethics and it is highly effective and easy. I haven’t always trained this way, but I knew it was for me the first time I took a clicker training class. It just makes sense to me to use a training system that is kind and fair to the learner, fosters trust and communication, makes training fun for both ends of the leash, and gets long lasting results. Dogs have the intelligence of a pre-verbal child and has many of the same emotions we do which is why I believe in training them is as much of a hands-off and dog friendly manner as possible. Try to think of your relationship with your dog as a friend, parent, and translator – my dogs are my friends and members of my family first and foremost. I am not perfect, but I do my best and thankfully, they forgive me when I make mistakes and accept me regardless.