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Bringing clarity to clickers and positive reinforcement:

September 28, 2008

You hear the words “Clicker training”, “Clickers”, “Positive Reinforcement” etc… but what’s it all mean? Let me try to help clarify some points:

  1. Using a “Clicker” doesn’t mean a person doesn’t use “punishment” (hopefully not at the same time)… 
  2. Positive Reinforcement doesn’t mean a person doesn’t use punishment.
  3. Positive reinforcement doesn’t mean a person doesn’t use physical force to get what they want! 
  4. Using “punishment” doesn’t mean a person uses physical force or inhumane methods to teach. 
  5. There are two types of “punishment”:
  • “Negative Punishment”: Taking the good thing away
  • “Positive Punishment”: adding something the animal wants to avoid – a smack, shock, choke, prong in the neck, citronella spray, loud noise, being pinned, etc…
Why do I bring this up? A couple of reasons. There are some trainers out there that say they’re somewhere between “A clicker trainer” and a famous trainer who uses physical force, flooding, fear tactics, and downright “old fashioned” training methods. (Sorry, name withheld to protect privacy and CMA)…
I wanted to say to this person: “What does being a ‘clicker trainer’ mean to you?” It certainly isn’t exclusive to causing no harm to an animal – it’s just another tool in your trainers toolbox, as it is mine. It “marks” the behavior you wanted your dog (or any animal) to perform…not much more. 
I use a clicker as one of my training tools. I also use “punishment”. As a matter of fact I spoke about it today in my Manners Class at the Inquisitive Canine studio. However, the type of ‘punishment’ I use and teach has to do with “reward removal” –  not hitting, beating, shocking, spraying, coercing, forcing, or bullying! 
No animal learns that way without resulting in some nasty (usually “emotional”) side-effects. Do animals learn through beating and force techniques? Sure they do – or should I say, “we” do… But what else are they “learning” besides what the owner/parent wants? – which is usually not the first or main thing they learn… 
My final example: I was coming home from a run, heading in the opposite direction of a man and his dog. I’m sure I looked “weird” to the dog…hat, sunglasses, water bottle belt, running right towards it. This can be perceived by dogs as “threatening”, right? Something weird running at it… So the dog did the most logical thing it could do in it’s little canine brain – it started barking at me – I didn’t blame it at all. Unfortunately the owner did – and proceeded to smack it repeatedly on the head! The dog looked at me, barked, got smacked and yelled at. I cringed! I think I yelped myself! Then screamed at him to please not hit the dog!!! Why is he hitting him! it doesn’t teach him what you want! 
I know, that can be pretty punishing to someone – being yelled at it public. As for “positive punishment” towards humans – of course I’m against it (unless it’s self defense) – However, I did have a secret desire to smack the owner and take the dog… Hopefully they will end up in one of my classes – either at the studio or Ventura College, so I can supply an education in positive reinforcement, learning by both association and consequence, proper ways to get rid of unwanted behaviors, and clickers (or not). 

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