Clickerama by Dr. Miles Arakaki
It was during a break in between classes of the Mine Dog Handlers course that the conversation drifted to different methods of working a bomb dog. Some of the students were experienced off-leash dog handlers transitioning to the mine dog section (leashed search dog work), and I had brought up the idea of using a laser pointer to direct a search. To prove my point, I spaced out a bunch of scent boxes, one loaded with explosive odor, at the end of a long hallway. I then called my Golden Retriever, Remo, from his hidey hole under my desk and put him in a sit at the other end of the hall. I got a laser pointer and scribbled the light on the floor in front of him to get his attention. “Find It,” I commanded as I ran the laser light down the hallway. Remo immediately followed, placing his nose down and sniffing wherever I paused the laser. At the end of the hallway, I pointed the laser at each scent box, and he followed with his nose until he came to the one with the odor, at which point he went into the alert behavior of a sit, intently staring at the source awaiting his reward. I waited a few seconds to ensure he was committed to the source, then tossed him a tennis ball. There were some ooh's and aah's from the crowd, and it was a cool distraction from the grind of the daily curriculum.
I had used Clicker Training to teach Remo to follow the laser pointer months earlier. At that time, the general consensus among traditional working dog trainers was that Clicker was a gimmick or fad with no serious applications. I had read anecdotal stories from a European trainer who had used Clicker to successfully train an ‘untrainable’ dog, and I had met Scott Thomas, at that time the manager for TSA’s dog program in Texas, and a strong proponent for Clicker Training. My interest was piqued, and I decided to use the clicker to teach Remo to place his nose on a green laser dot in order to direct his search off leash. I spent a few days “loading” the association between the ‘click’ and the reward by snapping the clicker, then immediately giving him a kibble. I then lay a trail of kibble on the ground and waved the laser pointer over it. When Remo placed his nose over a kibble, I’d give him a ‘click’. After a few repetitions (less than 10 minutes of total training time), he learned the game. He began to follow the laser around the room in search of a reward. A few days later, I began to run the pointer across explosives odor, and his prior training kicked in with him giving a proper ‘alert’ signal while awaiting his tennis ball reward. The process of taking small distinct behaviors and stringing them into more complex ones is known as ‘subsequent approximation’, and I was honestly surprised at how easy it was using the clicker to associate the laser with a search behavior. I became a believer.
Fast forward several years, and I noticed several clients with newly adopted dogs coming into the clinic for routine wellness exams. The dogs had histories of poor socialization, severe fearfulness and anxiety, and their owners were trying to use the clicker to help alleviate it. As I would try to perform my exams, the dogs would hide, spin, or snap, and during random intervals when I wasn’t pressuring them, their owners would ‘click’ and give them a treat. The exam room began to sound like a forest full of crickets, but there was no improvement to the dogs’ behaviors. Scott Thomas, from the TSA, was using clickers for this exact purpose; to get aggressive Belgian Malinois and German Shepherds to hold still during physical exams. But the technique he was using was Target Training; focusing a dog’s attention on a specific target while ignoring other distractions. The clicker was just the tool, not the actual training solution. Of course, it was impossible to explain this to a new owner in the middle of a 30-minute exam, and a few of them understandably thought I was full of it in light of the conflicting advice from their trainers. I became a cynic. . . but not necessarily in the clicker itself.
Clicker training is a method of training under the Operant Conditioning concepts set forth by B.F. Skinner beginning in the 1940’s. Marian Kruse and Keller Breland were two students of Skinner who attempted to commercialize their methods of animal training in the 1940’s and 50’s, but it wasn’t until the 80’s and 90’s that Clicker Training began to catch on with the help of Karen Pryor and Gary Wilkes. The clicker is a device that aids in positive reinforcement by precisely marking a specific behavior. When Remo put his nose down on a green laser, the ‘click’ marked the behavior and signaled a reward. By learning exactly which behavior led to reward, he was more apt to repeat it in the future. The clicker did NOT teach Remo the behavior, it marked it. Ultimately a well-designed, properly executed training plan is what teaches the behavior, with the clicker speeding the process. When people try to reinforce a calm demeanor with a clicker, it doesn’t work because the behavior is not specific enough. Just because a dog is standing still does not mean he is calm and relaxed inside. The ‘clicks’ and rewards become random and meaningless, the end result being confusion. In Scott Thomas’ plan, the specific behavior leading to reward was for the dog to place his nose on a target on the wall. As the dogs developed fluency in the behavior, the standards of performance increased to holding still for a physical exam and vaccine injections. The process did not necessarily make them happy; some of those dogs were growling the entire time, but their noses never left the target. The clicker works, when used in the proper context.
Teaching Remo to follow the laser was an experiment for my own edification. I found the actual use of a laser pointer impractical in the field due to different environmental conditions inhibiting the dog’s ability to reliably see the light. I did get some good experience with the clicker. Today, I rarely use the clicker to train. With an understanding of Operant Conditioning and the variables that contribute to a successful training plan, I don’t have to. The clicker is not some magic device that is going to automatically make a dog successful. If the training plan is faulty, if the handler’s skills are deficient, if one of a dozen other variables is off, the clicker becomes white noise. My clicker sits in the toolbox next to the prong collar, electronic collar, long line, bite sleeve, muzzle, and a variety of other devices, none of which are effective without an understanding of and adherence to behavior theory and fundamental training concepts.