Bridging the Gap between Clicker Training and Voice Training

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Remember when you got an A back in grade school and your parents gave you a dollar and put the test up on the fridge? That is a prime example of positive enforcement. A few decades ago the prevailing methods for training dogs involved the use of force and physical punishment. The use of choke chains, prong collars and corrections to impose the owner’s will on the dog was widely accepted, but not anymore. In the late 1980’s, Karen Pryor, a dolphin trainer, introduced the world to a far gentler method of training. She extrapolated the principles of behavior and learning developed in the 20th century by behavior scientist BF Skinner and suggested the use of a clicker to train dogs without verbal or physical force.

This type of positive reinforcement techniques go a long way in keeping the spirit of your dog intact while ensuring he learns the necessary commands or tricks you hope to teach. A similar positive reinforcement training technique is the more traditional training method of using voice markers. A click is not a sound heard by the dog in usual circumstances. For the dog it means only one thing, a reward is coming for what you did when you heard the click. The sound can be produced instantly when the behavior is exhibited. Unlike our voices, a click sounds the same every time, its meaning never varies.

Dogs are not verbal creatures and it may be difficult for them to pick up instructions in the stream of words they hear every day. This is where clicker training comes in handy. But as is the case with every training method, clicker training too has its pros and cons.

Know Why You Are Clicking

One of the biggest misconceptions about clicker training is that many people, dog trainers included, believe that the more clicking, the better. This often tends to delay getting the desired results from the training. You may be able to get away with mistakes because dogs are very intelligent and intuit what your original intention was. But as the exercises get harder you may find results to be far different from the expected behavior if you persist making the mistakes.

Learning the theoretical part of clicker training is vital for the trainer to have a good understanding of timing, criteria, rate of reinforcement, environmental stressors, etc. You must know why you are clicking if you want your dog to understand that. It is always up to the dog to draw a conclusion as to which behavior he is getting the reward for. This can be a drawback for this form of training if the trainer misinterprets the understanding of the dog and continues the training unchanged.

Advantages of Clicker Training

This enables the dog to work in a highly rewarding atmosphere which encourages him to try and explore new things. The dog will not lose interest easily or be demotivated with this form of training. This form of reward based training can last for longer sessions than other traditional forms of training methods. The clicker also allows you to time the instructions perfectly, making it amply clear to the dog what behavior was appreciated and what wasn’t. This is now one of the most prevalent methods of dog training and builds a great relationship between the dog and its owner.

Disadvantages of Clicker Training

When you are dealing with a dog that has less interest in food or toys it will leave you with nothing valuable enough to use as a reward making it difficult to train your dog. If done carelessly, the transition from continuous to variable and random reinforcement, the learned behaviors may be soon forgotten without a prolonged presence of the reward. This form of training requires a lot of practice and understanding and more importantly, good hand-eye coordination.

Clicker Training Vs Voice Training

Both of these training methods have essentially the same principle. The only difference is that in one you use a clicker while in the other you select a verbal marker. Using specific words for specific behaviors like sit, heel, down, etc. are most commonly observed when imparting basic training to the dog. The most important part in voice training is to ensure that the verbal marker used is only used to mark a behavior for your dog, it should be short, sharp and not something used in everyday conversation.

Many in the dog training community are divided over which method is better. Some believe that clicker training produces faster and better results and some believe verbal markers amply do the job. For most this is a personal choice, using both methods alternatively depending upon what behavior you are teaching the dog would be a good idea. The point here would be to recognize the pros and cons of both the techniques and use them in relation with the personality of your dog.

Attaching a motivational and emotional response to the dog via a verbal marker is a good idea to compliment with clicker training. This helps the dog give a more motivated response and keeps its energy and engagement up. Clicker training is highly effective in teaching tricks and is effectively used to train guide dogs as it does not let the dogs get overexcited and allows them to stay focused on the task at hand.

Using a high-pitched, happy-sounding voice that mimics the whine that dog mothers use to reward positive behavior in puppies can make the dogs respond well. You may forget the clicker somewhere but your voices will stay intact. It is always advisable to teach basic instructions to your dog through voice markers.

Clicker training has gained a lot of ground in recent times and has begun to be used widely, and rightly so. It is a positive reinforcement method for dogs that helps them stay calm, focused and still learning. For clickers to be effective they need to be paired with a strong biological imperative like food or some other kind of treat. But ultimately it all comes down to it being a matter of preference. In the case of both, clicker training and voice training, timing is crucial, and when done right the results will be there for everyone to see.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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