Which is best; a clicker, a marker word or just handing over a cookie when the dog does something which makes us proud?
Ask yourself what are the goals for the training session.
If you’re working on simple classical conditioning (for example: You want the dog to feel good in a new building) then hand over free cookies. Since the dog’s consciousness of their behavior is irrelevant, there’s no reason to use a clicker or a marker word. You simply want your dog to enjoy the situation – classical conditioning at work.
If you’re working on a trained behavior that has an element of duration, but the actual moment that you choose to hand over the cookie is not relevant, then there is also no need for a marker. Just release from the formal work, hand over free cookies with praise, and go from there.
For example, if you’re working on loose leash walking and the dog has been walking for a full minute without pulling, then there really is no specific moment to mark. You’re just happy with a “period of time.” Since this exact second is not different than the one before, a marker can’t mark anything.
The additional marker won’t hurt mellow dogs, but if you do much of that with clicker savvy or high drive dogs, they will actually try to figure out what they were doing at that second – which is nothing different than the second before. Talk about frustrating for the dog!
Which brings us to the clicker.
When shaping behaviors, you want the dog to be very aware of how their choices (at every second) are affecting their likelihood of getting a reward. You are trying to identify a precise moment in time in as distinct a manner as possible.
For example, let’s say you’re trying to teach your dog to put their head on the ground. When the head moves the slightest fraction, you want to mark that moment! Use a clicker, because you want the dog thinking “what did I do at that exact second that was different than the second before?”
That is what a clicker does incredibly well – identifies exact moments in time and marks them in the dog’s mind. The more “clicker savvy” the dog, the more the dog will start to think about what they were doing at the moment that they heard that distinct sound – what was different than the moment before?
How about a marker word like “yes!”. Is that as good as a clicker?
In theory it would appear to be so, but my experience is that a click is better if the dog is learning or refining a new behavior. Maybe because it is so distinct, or maybe because it is devoid of relationship so the dog is more focused on what it takes to earn the cookie- I’m not sure.
I’m pragmatic. Clickers take up an extra hand, so I’d suggest that a person work strictly with a marker word in training if they are a novice pet person who has no real interest in precision work or learning shaping. Just let them say “yay!” when they are handing over a reward, and develop that emotional connection with their dog – something our voice can do extremely well! Don’t go for a neutral reward – it’s not a neutral moment. Get the handler’s personality in there!
Or just have your students hand over a cookie with no real marker at all. That’s fine too. If you’re not going for precision and your dog knows the behavior – maybe you’re just giving a cookie for whatever the dog just did, or maybe for a whole chain of things that the dog did. So then you can give a cookie and you’re good to go.
The goal is to reward our entire time together, not a specific moment or behavior.
Try to keep things simple when the owner is working at a simple level. As the work becomes more complex or precise, and identifying specific moments in time becomes more important, then consider introducing a clicker. But not for a novice trainer. They have their hands full just keeping track of the dog.
This is what works for me. At the end of the day, you’re likely to find that any method that involves handing over cookies gets you where you want to go. Dogs are smart like that.
Now, having said all of that, it’s never a bad idea to show a group of new students a quick shaping exercise if you have a clicker savvy dog. Not only will it knock their socks off, it will help them recognize the depth of intelligence and effort that is wrapped up in their furry little bundle.
Which may well be the moment that pet person turns into a dog person.