A common fallacy regarding clicker training is that dogs trained without the use of corrections are somehow less reliable than their traditionally-trained counterparts. By “traditional training”, I am referring to frequent use of aversives: collar corrections, leash pops, strong verbal corrections, electric shocks, and/or hitting. This simply isn’t the case. There are clicker trained service dogs, police K-9s, search-and-rescue dogs, and hunting dogs. If they were not reliable, they would be “career changed” (i.e., put in a pet home). If the training techniques weren’t working, the trainers would be fired. The fact that these trainers not only continue to use these methods, but many of them are hired to present seminars so that other professionals can achieve the same results, speaks volumes about the quality of the dogs that these trainers produce.
First, a history lesson. Keller Breland was a graduate student of B.F. Skinner. He is believed to be the first person to use a clicker as an event marker while training dogs. (Source.) Upon starting Animal Behavior Enterprises with his wife in 1943, the first training he undertook was hunting dogs. From 1944 to 1946, Keller Breland trained several hunting dogs using positive reinforcement (clickers and whistles were both used as a “bridge”). The dogs were used as both hunting companions and field trial dogs. (Source — PDF. See side bar on page 11.) The other hunting dog trainers were not interested in learning his methods, so he and his wife, Marian Breland Bailey, turned their focus to more profitable endeavors, namely, training all sorts of animals (rabbits, ducks, cats, and pigs, to name a few) to appear in television commercials.
Doesn’t that sound familiar? “The other hunting dog trainers were not interested in learning his methods.” It’s unfortunately still true today, 70 years later!
There are many misconceptions about clicker training, and I plan to address those in future blog posts. “Clicker training only works for tricks and pet dog manners” is a favorite of the naysayers. I would like to highlight just some of the real results clicker trainers are getting with their dogs.
Michele Pouliot is the Director of Research and Development for Guide Dogs for the Blind. She helped develop the BEST program for training guide dogs, steering their program away from collar corrections and into using positive reinforcement training. The result? More dogs are making it through the program and are becoming guide dogs. (Source — PDF.) “Changes in the ratio of dogs to instructors, combined with continuing advancements in guidework training (positive reinforcement, clicker training and the judicious use of food rewards) are showing tremendous promise. We’re condensing the same number of workouts into a shorter overall time frame, which means our dogs can become full-fledged Guide Dogs, with the same quality of training, in half the time (from four to two months) with more individualized attention.” — Nancy Gardner, President and CEO of Guide Dogs for the Blind. (Source — Word document.)
Nancy Driver taught for a decade for an Assistance Dogs International accredited program using clicker training. She writes, “During the years of my training service, we had a fairly unique training curriculum whereby the foster homes did all the training until placement at 2.5 years of age. The dogs were all clicker trained starting at 8 weeks. We had an exceptionally high placement rate for the industry. I believe it was because of the use of force free methods, raising the dogs in the home and with exceptional training support from the instructors to the foster homes. Placement rate was typically around 80% or above and many of the organizations are below 50% when they use a model of various training methods, using puppy raisers the first year and the dogs are returned to kennels for finishing.”
Steve White is a police dog trainer with over thirty years of experience. He has served as a handler, trainer, and supervisor for the Seattle Police Canine Unit and is accredited as a Master Trainer by the Washington State Police Canine Association. He began clicker training in the mid-90s and has been using it successfully ever since. (Source.) He presents seminars and workshops internationally on tracking and scent work.
Robert Milner used traditional training methods for 40 years and changed to positive reinforcement methods 10 years ago. He founded Wildrose Kennels in 1972 and created a disaster search-and-rescue training protocol for FEMA before starting Duckhill Kennels in 2007. At Duckhill Kennels, Robert imports, breeds, and trains Labrador Retrievers for gundog work, search-and-rescue, and disaster work. He writes, “I also established and designed DuckHill to serve as a laboratory in which to develop and improve the training processes for the above three functions. A primary goal of this training exploration is to remove as much force as possible from the training process and replace it with operant conditioning/positive reinforcement training techniques.” (Source.) Below is a video of an interview with Robert that discusses his change to positive reinforcement based training.
Steffen Peters, two-time Olympic eventing competitor, is a clicker training equestrian. He and his mount Ravel compete at the highest levels of the sport. “This pair have risen to the top of International Dressage competition. In 2009 Peters won the FEI Rolex World Cup finals, then went on to sweep the Grand Prix, the Special and the Freestyle at Aachen, something no American had ever done. That same year United States Dressage Federation (USDF) named Ravel horse of the year.” (Source.) He credits their success to use of the clicker and positive reinforcement training. (Source.) Here is a video of one of their performances.
Alexandra Kurland is an accomplished clicker trainer of horses. Her most well-known subject is Panda, a miniature horse trained to act as a “seeing-eye” horse. Horses have a much longer working lifespan than dogs, which makes them a desirable alternative to guide dogs. “They’re naturally cautious and have exceptional vision, with eyes set far apart for nearly 360-degree range. Plus, they’re herd animals, so they instinctively synchronize their movements with others. But the biggest reason is age: miniature horses can live and work for more than 30 years. In that time, a blind person typically goes through five to seven guide dogs. That can be draining both emotionally and economically, because each one can cost up to $60,000 to breed, train and place in a home.” (Source.) Alexandra has documented some of Panda’s training at The Panda Project.