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.
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.