Women: imagine that you’re learning to swing a baseball bat. You just can’t get your grip or swing right, so your instructor wraps his arms around you to help you adjust your hands to the correct position. He places his left hand over your left hand and his right hand over your right hand, moving your fingers and wrists until everything is properly aligned. He then moves your shoulders and arms to show you how to swing. Are you thinking about your grip on the bat as this happens, or is part of your attention focused on the person standing so closely behind you?
Men: imagine that you’re taking a difficult math course. You hire a tutor, a woman who comes highly recommended by your professor. As your tutor looks at the equation you have a question about, she places her hand on your shoulder. She leaves it there as she explains the formula you need to use to solve for x. When you make an error, she leans over you and writes over your work to show you where you went wrong. Are you concentrating solely on the math equation, or is your attention divided by her hand resting on your shoulder?
Touch inhibits learning. We understand this all-to-well when it comes to the human examples above, but this truth is often blatantly disregarded when it comes to our dogs. Here’s the thing: pushing down on your dog’s butt to get him to sit is every bit as distracting to his learning process as your coach’s hand on your shoulder or hand.
It’s human nature to use our hands to solve problems. Those opposable thumbs provided an evolutionary advantage millions of generations ago, and our instinctive memory has never forgotten that. People approach problems by touching them or talking about them, and neither approach is all that helpful in training our dogs.
The best trainers understand this. Touch can be an excellent reward for many dogs, whether it’s used for play (such as tag games) or pleasure (such as scratching that itchy spot under the collar or rubbing your dog’s belly). However, touching your dog while he’s trying to solve a problem shuts down his problem solving ability and makes learning more difficult.
No matter how kind and gentle you are, placing your dog into position switches his role in training to that of a passive participant. If you gently tuck your dog into a sitting position by stroking under his chin and folding his back legs under him, who was responsible for that sit? It certainly wasn’t him. When a dog who has been taught to sit using this molding technique is given the sit command, he sits because he understands that if he doesn’t, you’ll do so for him. You own his sitting behavior. He responds dutifully when he hears the sit command, because he has learned that he will be compelled to sit one way or another whenever he hears the word.
Clicker training, on the other hand, encourages dogs to become active partners in the training process. Instead of passively being placed where they should go, we encourage dogs to take responsibility for their own actions. The dog sits because he wants to do so. He learns that sitting sometimes pays off, and the act of sitting sometimes earns a click and reward, which makes him happy. The dog learns to sit on cue because doing so is worth his while. The dog owns the sitting behavior. Sitting is his job rather than his chore, and he can take pride in it. He becomes excited when he hears the sit cue, because that word has been associated with pleasant things in the past.
But don’t we want the dog to learn that he has to sit when we say so? I oftentimes hear people say that they are happy to teach tricks with the clicker, but feel that they need to use some level of compulsion with “obedience” behaviors such as sit and come so that the dog learns he must obey every time he’s given a command. These people believe that the dog won’t be reliable unless he learns that there’s an unpleasant consequence for disobeying. Sadly, this fact is absolutely true for these people. Once a dog has been punished for noncompliance once, he will never again feel the same level of joy or happy anticipation when he hears the cue for that behavior. Research on these “poisoned cues” is very clear: once you’ve punished once, you completely ruin the future reinforcement value of the cue. Your dog will no longer feel a rush of pleasure upon hearing that cue, and now you’re resigned to continue punishing noncompliance in order to create a reliable dog.
Of course, research has also shown us that this isn’t necessary. We know that animals of all species, including dogs, can become incredibly reliable with absolutely no compulsion. Consider the wild-caught dolphins who are trained by the military to detect explosives in the ocean. These dolphins, who are trained solely through positive reinforcement, are regularly released from a boat into the very ocean from which they were captured. They must then swim several miles away, perform a complex chain of behaviors while surrounded by food (entire schools of fish) that they must ignore to perform their task, then return to the boat, on which they willingly breach themselves to be returned to their little tank at the training center. This level of reliability could not be created through compulsion. The dolphins find joy in their work because they’ve been conditioned to do so throughout the entire training process. So too can our dogs.
Training a dog without compulsion requires a major mental shift for many people, but the rewards are obvious. The pure joy that a clicker-trained dog finds in work, the deep relationship that the trainer and trainee develop, and the amazing partnership and communication that comes from working in concert can’t be described, but rather must be felt at a personal level. Even writing about it gives me goosebumps.
The take-home message here is clear: hands-off, reward-based training creates joy. Joy for the dog, joy for you, and joy for those who observe the amazing things the two of you can accomplish together. Touch your dog in play. Touch your dog in praise. Touch your dog in celebration of your bond and your training and your partnership. But never, ever, touch your dog in the name of “making” him do something for the sake of your ego or your poor ability to teach him what he needs to learn. You both deserve better. Compulsion works, but positive reinforcement works better. And don’t you and your dog both deserve the best?