Why I am not a Clicker Trainer

I do not consider myself a clicker trainer. This may surprise people who know me, since I appear to embrace all of the popular tenets of clicker training. I use a clicker or other marker signal to train, utilize primarily positive reinforcement, and avoid the use of force. However, I find it just as offensive to be referred to as a “clicker trainer” as to be compared to the Dog Whisperer.

I am a dog trainer. I am a teacher. I am flexible. I am willing to adjust my training plan for each dog. I find it insulting to be defined by the tools I do or do not use.

Photo by Karen

Photo by Karen

What is a “clicker trainer,” anyway? Is anyone who uses a clicker a clicker trainer? What if that person has a clicker in one hand and the remote for an electronic collar in the other? What if they never use a clicker, but use a different clear and distinct marker signal? Does someone who never uses food count as a clicker trainer? What if they only use food, and no other rewards? Does the animal’s attitude towards training have any bearing on whether someone can be considered a clicker trainer? Who gets to define what this means… Karen Pryor, other “clicker trainers,” the general public?

Many people seem to believe that “clicker trainers” are kinder than another trainers. I used to believe this too. However, I don’t necessarily agree with that statement anymore. I believe that it is possible to be incredibly unkind to an animal without ever hurting or scaring that animal.

I frequently see dogs who are miserable, even though they are not being popped or shocked, because their trainer is putting too much pressure on them. Some dogs wilt when a trainer stands quietly and watches them. Many dogs will work very hard for a piece of food, but find the work itself upsetting and therefore have no joy in performing it. Many dogs find it frustrating or demotivating to work with a trainer who doesn’t have clear criteria or basic mechanical skills.

I personally think it is every bit as unkind to put too much pressure on a dog in a clicker shaping exercise as it is to pop or “tap” him on a corrective collar. Understand, this doesn’t mean that we should never put pressure on our dogs. I consciously teach my dogs to handle frustration or pressure with confidence and aplomb. I want my dogs to approach difficult training exercises as interesting puzzles, and to feel good about their ability to win. I want my dogs to handle getting it wrong every bit as well as they handle getting it right. I want them to be motivated, not deflated, by failure.

Defining a trainer by the equipment he or she uses or does not use misses the bigger picture.

How does the dog feel while he is being trained? Is he happy and engaged or is he concerned? Does he approach training with joy or is he merely dutiful? Is he learning anything?

I am not a clicker trainer, but I choose to use a clicker or other marker signal to help my dog learn more quickly. I choose these tools because I feel that they reduce frustration and help the dog to more accurately pinpoint what he is doing right.

I hate it when trainers divide themselves into camps, as in my experience this only leads to name calling and tribalism. Defining ourselves by the tools we use is a small picture view of the profession. Instead, I would challenge myself and my colleagues to look at the big picture, which I believe boils down to two questions. 1 – Are the dogs happy? and 2 – Are they learning what they need to learn?

Defining ourselves by the tools we use loses sight of why we became trainers. I personally became a trainer because I want to help people enjoy their dogs. I absolutely have strong views about which tools can and cannot accomplish that goal, but I’m also willing to be open-minded. Just because I’ve never used a remote collar in over ten years of training doesn’t mean that I won’t ever use one. I can’t think of a situation where I would immediately apply that tool, but that doesn’t give me any right to condemn remote collar trainers who have happy dogs that are learning what they need to learn. Likewise, I do not use or permit prong collars in my training facility, but that doesn’t mean that I have any right to condemn other professional trainers who do so as long as the dogs they work with are happy and are learning what they need to learn.

So what do I call myself, then? How do I differentiate my training services from those of other trainers if I don’t like labels? Frankly, I let results speak for themselves. If pressed, I’ll call myself a professional trainer or possibly a behavior consultant if I’m helping someone deal with a serious behavior issue. I don’t get wrapped up in what people call me, but instead focus on what I do, which is to help people enjoy their dogs. I adhere to professional standards, such as the Humane Hierarchy and the LIMA (Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive) model. I keep my education current, and proudly share my certifications and educational background with anyone who asks. Most of all, I never stop learning, whether it be from other trainers, my clients, or, most importantly, the dogs themselves.

I am not a clicker trainer. I am a teacher for both people and their pets. I am an advocate for both people and their pets. And I am sick of the cult-like devotion some of my colleagues have to labels. Let’s focus on what’s truly important: happy, confident dogs learning what they need to learn.

30 responses to “Why I am not a Clicker Trainer

  1. Very well put!
    If I would have to label myself according to the materials I use, I’d be a food trainer, or a leash trainer, or maybe a target trainer? ;-)
    Nah, I’m probably better off calling myself a smile trainer, haha!

  2. Thank you so much for saying this! I used to track the “Clicker Training” article in Wikipedia, and my teacher kept saying, “But there is no such thing.” I finally got what she meant. I think a lot of the wrangling over definitions we have in this community comes from trying to equate an ethical stance (which is in itself a little blurry and not agreed upon) with one tool that some people use. Then we start getting these situations where the “clicker trainers” name another group that may not share their ethical stance “trainers with clickers.” Semantically that is a meaningless distinction, and also an aggressive use of labeling. Add to that the specific definitions Mr. Skinner put on some generally used words and we can really end up flailing around. I love Susan Friedman’s work and like the term Humane Hierarchy. Enjoyed your post.

  3. Good points! I don’t like using those kinds of labels either! I do think, however, that using “happy dog” as a standard of measure can be erroneous. In general, yes, most of us who have worked with dogs for awhile probably can detect a happy attitude. But some times, that can be tricky. Some dogs are upward stressors and appear “happy” when they are frantic. On the other hand, some types of dog work do not appear to the untrained eye as “happy” at all. For instance, a border collie working livestock does so with its tail down, and sometimes even tucked between legs! And of course, most of those serious appearing border collies would rather work stock than do anything else in the world. So yes, I guess they are “happy” (which might be more of a human emotion?) but they may not look like it.

    • …and the misuse of that term ‘happy’ goes hand in hand with claims that dogs ‘love’ a particular food, when in fact they are just eating it. Personally, I think my dogs are ‘happy’ when they are sleeping. I wholeheartedly agree with the main point of the article though.

  4. Love this piece! Agree 100%! Wish I had time to write moer, maybe later.

  5. Wish I could spell! “more”

  6. Another well written, eloquently expressed piece! Perfect for keeping perspective as I head to ClickerExpo in a couple of weeks. Thank you!

  7. I agree with Bob Bailey who said Karen Pryor gets to define what clicker training is. A few years ago, the definition of a clicker trainer as posted on the Karen Pryor site read something like “someone who uses R+, P-, extinction along with an event marker to change and create new behaviors” (I am paraphrasing and the node with the definition is no longer there).

    Understand that there is a difference between a clicker trainer and someone who trains with a clicker.

    Under that definition, I AM a clicker trainer.

  8. Well put. My personal definition of good, or at least good enough, training is that it increases that happiness of both the dog and the owner/trainer. My dogs and I have a great time together learning things with the aid of a clicker and treats. But when my then-adolescent Terv decided it would be more fun to run off and pee on things rather than coming when called, he was having fun, but I sure wasn’t! He might not have particularly enjoyed the judicious (and I do mean judicious–the lowest level that got the job done) use of an electronic collar to teach him that coming was not optional, but he is much happier being able being able to do the off-leash things that he enjoys, The process was not cruel and abusive, and it got us back to where we both could have fun. It’s the only thing I’ve ever used an e-collar for, but for that particular job, with that particular dog, at that particular time, it was a fine tool. I have no problem with people deciding that they don’t ever want to use a particular tool–as per my rule, they should absolutely do what makes them happy. But it makes me nuts when people declare that ANYONE who uses an e-collar or pinch collar is cruel, and will INEVITABLY destroy their relationship with their dogs.What I’ve seen (with my own dogs, with dogs of students, with dogs of other trainers) simply doesn’t bear that assumption out.

    • Lynn, I am particularly annoyed with the people that have trained one or two dogs in their lives and/or are very young with experience with only one or two breeds of dogs, yet INSIST there is only one way that is right, or fair or humane or happy or… While I have trained only 4 breeds myself (3 Belgian flavors, a Collie, a Chinese Crested and a Mudi) I have instructed the owners of many breeds in classes. The writer claims to not say “never” to certain methods such as prong collars, yet she forbids them in her training center. $#%@*&?? They have a distinct value in the right hands with some dogs. Puppies? usually not. Rowdy adolescents and confident adults? Sometimes. I use MANY methods, myself.

  9. I agree wholeheartedly with you. This is how I defined myself which is similar to your own view. I wish trainers could all just get along and concentrate on the dog and client. We are after the same goals to enhance the dog’s ability to live a full and happy live with a forever family. http://michigandogtraining.me/2011/04/01/dog-trainer-labels/

  10. I’m with you Kim. I am a clicker trainer under the guidelines you present in your post.

  11. I am proud to call myself a clicker trainer, but then I’ve trained with Marian Bailey, Bob Bailey, Karen Pryor, and Gary Wilkes personally. I also use what I learned from then, not only to train dogs but to teach my high school students.

  12. I am with Deb and Kim and Kathleen – I am proud of the being a clicker trainer. I am happy to be labeled or as I consider it – titled as such. Not using categories means that the general public get an idea of what you are doing and what style of training they are purchasing. It is branding – not labeling.

    Recently in Australia, we have been the first country to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes. This means that all cigarettes, regardless of the company that makes them are sold in a drab, olive box with a disturbing image on the front. Ask yourself why the cigarette companies are fighting the government to stop this from happening. It is because they are loosing their intellectual property – they are loosing their branding and their image.

    I don’t want to be confused with every other trainer – I am not interested in promoting training styles that use force and pain to get a dog to respond, be that just through passivity and not promoting the philosophy which I have embraced.

    Cognitive dissonance allows people to inflict pain on their dogs and still claim that their dog is happy. They were self justify – some dogs just need to be trained that way – they are to stubborn to be trained with reinforcement. Then you are starting on a slippery slope.

    People, including are the ones that limit the effectiveness of training in most cases not the dog. Where knowledge end, aversion begins. I am a specialist dog trainer – I work with positive reinforcement, I work with out force, I work with a marker – and I intend to master of that style of dog training. I have challenging dogs, I must work harder at my craft and find their motivation so that we can work together. I am a clicker trainer.

    Using a title or a brand is not the same as being labeled.

  13. I don’t love this. I especially don’t love the first paragraph. This is why I struggle with the idea of writing a blog. Who is your target audience? If it’s trainers, well then, alrighty. If not. Eh… Not such a good idea. A lot of my FB friends and followers on my business page and website are clients and pet people. They don’t understand that being called a “dog whisperer” is offensive to some trainers. I happen to take it as a compliment because Paul Owens is the original Dog Whisperer, and my clients think it is positive. I’m not going to correct them about something they think is a compliment. I don’t give a poop what people call me as long as they like what I do and are happy with the results I produce. If I were a pet person reading this, I would be very confused, and quite possibly put off. However, as a trainer, I DO LOVE the subject, and theme of Sarah’s blog. Because I work very similarly to her. Whatever works and isn’t forceful is what I use. That applies to the people and to the dogs. Everyone learns differently and at a different rate, using a variety of tools and or methods. I show people their options and give them the choice. Clicker? Verbal marker? Luring? Shaping? Targeting Heel or With Me? etc. I use them all. I could care less if someone labels me a clicker trainer or calls me a DW. As long as people are talking about me posiively and are happy with what I do, I’m satisfied.

    • Why does knowledge have to end where aversion begins? Maybe some form of aversion is just what was needed. In that case maybe the trainer who realizes this truth has just a little more knowledge than the trainer who refuses to acknowledge it.

  14. Hello Sara, I’m a non-trainer, one of the “pet people,” who aspires to better communication with dogs and I appreciate your blog post and discussion! I found your blog through a Facebook friend whom I met while volunteering at an emergency boarding facility for pets displaced by the Sandy storm. I had the privilege of observing numerous expert dog handlers, Responders from all over the country; their styles differed but their control and calming influence on the dogs under stress was uniformly impressive! I am also a recently certified Pilates teacher and I can relate to what you trainers are saying about labels and being labeled. Pilates, like “non-aversive” or “positive” dog training is a fairly well-defined methodology yet the interpretations and implementations are far-ranging and frankly, confusing. As a very recent consumer of professional dog training services for the foster dog in my care, I am challenged to integrate and implement the very good advice I received from two different trainers who both repeatedly stated that there is no one best approach but who also made different recommendations. Slip lead or e-z walk harness? If it isn’t working, is it the tool or my user error? Or is it not working yet, but it will if I keep doing what I’m doing? It comes down to my lack of confidence that I can execute the techniques that I’ve been shown. Doesn’t my lack of confidence transmit to the dog, and undermine the entire process? Perhaps as teachers, the best thing we can do for our clients/students is to build their confidence. What you professional dog trainers have to do amazes me: you’ve got to train the pet caregiver as well as the pet and you’re dealing with another species and another psychology. I respect all of you for taking on that challenge!

  15. Sara, while I understand your points and even your frustration, I am always saddened to see pieces like this. For me, the job of changing the perception of the capabilities of dogs and the more effective ways of teaching them through behavioural science and reinforcement based techniques is a big one. It’s a job that we have been at for decades and it looks like we still have decades to go before what we know becomes accepted by the larger dog-owning community.

    Am I a “clicker trainer”? Sure. I’m also a “food trainer”, a “behavioural science trainer”, an “ethology trainer”, and a “canine physiology trainer” because I use all of those things in my training program as well. But is this really something we should be arguing about?

    I do not see the term “clicker trainer” as a limiting label. In my own work, I much more often refer to myself as a “mark and reward trainer” and you know what? That doesn’t really adequately describe what I do either. I have spent too much time reading psychology texts, reading scientific papers on canine physiology and genetics, and understanding the work of people like B.F. Skinner, Ivan Pavlov, Herbert Terrace, and others. I don’t think the label has been invented that would succinctly describe how I approach dogs and training.

    And if there were such a term, it would be so vague so as to be almost meaningless to dog owners who tried to understand what I do. Worse, whatever label I found for myself, I’m sure there are any number of ways to reinterpret, misconstrue, or otherwise misrepresent what I intended it to mean.

    I guess my question is this…Do those of us who are striving for a more effective, efficient, humane, and pressure-free way to teach dogs really have nothing better to do than to divide ourselves against ourselves?

    Yes, Karen Pryor has created something of a cottage industry around “clickers” and “Clicker Training” but who is to say that Pryor alone is the one true source of the definition of what a “clicker trainer” is? In fact, I have never seen in print any such definition by Karen Pryor that attempts to set criteria for who is and is not a “clicker trainer.” Essays have been written by no less respectable a personality than Kathy Sdao regarding what being a “clicker trainer” could mean and I believe that opinion pieces will continue to be written by various trainers.

    My concern is that we are falling into the same trap that our colleagues the “Balanced Trainers” are struggling with. I have heard “clicker trainer”, “force-free trainer”, “positive trainer”, “pure positive trainer”, “reinforcement trainer” and others. If I choose to accept the label of “clicker trainer” do I get voted off of this particular island? Am I now part of “the tribe of Karen Pryor”? Or can I not just be struggling, like so many others, to find commonly accepted terms to describe the kind of work I do with dogs?

    In my mind, a trainer should be defined by his/her work and not by the labels that they or others choose to use for what they do. Do we really need to look down our nose at those who allow themselves to be “defined by the tools they use”? Frankly I am more offended by the woman down the road who sells her services as a “dog trainer” without the first clue as to what a calming signal is, without an understanding of the operant conditioning model (never mind what quadrants she might choose to use), without a clue about desensitization and counter conditioning, who wouldn’t be able to tell you about fear or aggression thresholds, and on and on.

    Should I be offended to be called a “dog trainer” as well?

    While I understand and agree with many of your points about training in the piece above, I find it unfortunate that the implication is that “clicker trainers” are just as bad as anyone else. While that might be true, shouldn’t we, as progressive trainers (there, another stupid label) be trying to raise the overall level of training in the dog world and not sniping at our own?

    I was disappointed that many of your good points were obscured for my by the framework and tone in which you chose to place them.

    Thanks for writing and thanks for the space to offer my views.
    Eric Brad

  16. Very well put…you obviously know how to read dogs and their owners, and can best determine which methods work for each combo.

    I’m pretty sure that my Pyrs and Anatolians would find the clicker pretty hilarious, but worse yet, what if they became dependent on it and needed a reward every time they staved off a coyote attack? ;-)

  17. This article makes perfect sense so long as the definition of “happy” is the dog’s definition, rather than the trainer’s. Too many trainers cannot tell the difference between learned helplessness and happiness.

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  22. PFP – and too many trainers assume that just because a dog is being trained with a tool they don’t like the dog is unhappy, abused and practicing learned helplessness. Goes both ways!

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  24. I do feel defined by the ‘lack’ of tribal tools in my kit. The less I use to succeed with dogs or horses the better I feel about my communication skills. I would much rather ride without a bridle or saddle, just as I would rather work my dog without food, clickers, or harsh devices.

  25. Awesome post! I agree with everything. Why put labels on something? I am very open in my methods and don’t feel like my tools define me. I recently wrote about the label of being a balanced trainer…not loving that word because it is so overused and misconstrued when labeling a trainer as balanced. However, I do like it as an end goal. Balanced training to me is an end goal, I want a balanced dog. Am I a balanced trainer? I don’t even know what it means anymore. But I know I want a balanced dog!

  26. Reading common sense articles like this one is what we all need! Finally somebody with guts puts it in writing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Irene and the pack

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