Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Clickerless Clicker Training

Clicker training works great, but there is a small problem -- the clicker itself!

You see, if you have a clicker in one hand, it's more difficult to cue a dog with hand signals. And hand signals work.

In fact, hand signals work better than voice signals to initiate a behavior, as dogs are more wired for sight than sound.

Tie a spoken word or two with one or two hand signals, use a click as a well-timed marker for the exact behavior you are looking for, and reward with food, praise or play, and you can train a dog very fast.

So how do you get a strong click without a clicker? Simple -- use your mouth.

I click in a manner that is not so very different from that used by the Bushmen (San or Khoisan) people of South Africa for one of their basic clicks. I press my tongue against the roof of my mouth until it makes a little vacuum, and when I pull it away (pushing forward sightly), it makes a loud popping sound almost identical to that of a store-bought clicker.

And here's the best part: I can never lose it!

Below is a video of the great Miriam Makeba doing the "Click Song" in 1966. The language here is Xhosa -- the second or third most common language in South Africa, and one which has embraced three types of Khoisan clicks as an integral part of its structure.



Anton said...

ONe of the things I saw as a negative of clickertraining is that if you teach a dog that a clikc is a postive reinforcement how are you going to prevent fals positives. As a sound designer by trade I am perhaps more conciously listening to noises but i hear quite similar sounds to clickers everyday. How is a dog going to know the difference between a intended click from his handler or just a random enviroment sound that happens to sound very similar.
Seems like it could cause a lot of grieve.
I like your solution with a tongue click, I use it myself aswell (comes naturally I guess). For me & my dog its a "ey pay attention" sound.
The benefit of the mouth sound is that its also much more unique then the mechanical sound of the clicker.

PBurns said...

It actually turns out that the clicker sound is pretty unique and also quite directional; dogs do not have any problem at all picking the sound out from ambient noise and neither do people nearby. In fact, a clicker sound is so unique that a few clicks and everyone in the park will be looking around and wonder "what's that?!" The same occurs when a do a palatal mouth click, however; it's a pretty loud and very unique sound.

Of course ANY short clear sound can work as a marker or "go on" signal. Whistles work (though they tend to go too long in terms of sound), buzzers work (ditto on terms of length), a cap gun works well (but then you have to keep buying caps).

The advantage of a commercial clicker is that is always sounds the same, is pretty loud, is very cheap (about a buck), is very simple to use, and has a short sound which give a very precise moment and event to what you are actually saying "YES" too.

Of course even as simple as a clicker is, folks need to practice their timing. It's not hard, but timing IS important. It's best to learn how to time your clicks and THEN go work with the dogs, rather than make all your timing mistakes with the dog. Good timing make for faster (and more enjoyable) training.


Donna Miner said...

Clickerless Clicker Training? Now you're talking my language!

I've been reading with interest your condemnation of clicker trainers and sanctification of Cesar Milan. IMO, both have their merits and demerits. Perhaps your extremist treatment of these trainers is a literary tool, but sometimes I have to wonder if someone has tweaked your nose. LOL

Mr Milan is obviously a most talented trainer, but based on the "Duh" expression on the faces of the owners of the dogs he trains, his explanations are somewhat esoteric. It is not so hard for a knowledgeable trainer to watch and see clearly what he is doing, but for these puzzled dog owners, his methods make him look a bit like Harry Potter in a world filled with Muggles. To my mind, he is a great trainer but a poor teacher.

Clicker trainers have a place in the training world and I have found them to be especially good at working with the general public to develop their understanding of operant conditioning concepts and improve their timing for marking behaviors. It can be so enlightening for a doubting client when they see their own "stupid" (their word, not mine!) pup learn a small trick in a minute or two, with the aid of a clicker. And in this regard, clicker trainers often are great teachers despite the fact that many of them are only "average" as trainers.

IMO, the measure of success for a professional trainer is not only in succeeding with the dog, but also in enabling the client to recreate that success. Both of these things are very important!

I have used Clickerless Clicker Training (and that's exactly what I've called it for the past 15 years!) with hand signals and taught thousands of people. It's a great way to start novice trainers and their young dogs. So easy for novices to become facile with training when they can ditch unnecessary physical props and can opt for more comfortable ways to train. Heck, people can even get excellent results using a curt vocalization like the word "good".

Thanks for a fun and interesting article!

PBurns said...

Please show me where I have condemned clicker training.

Seriously, please show me.

You see, I KNOW how to train a dog, and 95 percent or more of it is pure positive.

But because I know how to train a dog, I also know that ONLY pure positive training does not address every real problem that real people really face with real dogs.

So yes, I am FOR clicker and positive training.

But who isn't?

Millan is not opposed to it, is he?

Have you seen him say that or read it in his books? No!

So what am I opposed to if it is not clicker training?


Read what I have said.

I am OPPOSED to the "one solution fits all problems" ideologues in the clicker community who demonize anyone who actually uses ALL the tools of operant conditioning.

And, for the record, I am not alone in that opposition -- it turns out that the folks who actually INVENTED clicker training (it was not Karen Pryor or Ian Dubar!) agree on that point.

More on that in a later post. But YES, clickes are marvelous things, same as a hammer and saw. But a hammer and a saw do not make for a full tool box, do they? There are three tools to operant conditioning. Postive reinforcment is one one of them.


Heather Houlahan said...

But Patrick, you said that clicker training was not the solution to everything under the sun.

So you were being negative.

And that's abuse. Or at least "condemnation."

There is no room for nuance here!

It's like a nun falling down stairs.


PBurns said...

Still laughing at that one, Heather! Perfect. Gonna use that in a talk one day.


Seahorse said...

When I was in elementary school my music teacher tried to teach us this song, which was my introduction to Miriam Makebe. Remember 33 rpm records? We must have played it until it was transparent. We diligently worked to perfect the "click", and it wasn't easy to do while singing in a foreign tongue. We LOVED it though, and as I was born in Africa it was dear to my heart. Thanks for the memories.


Heather Houlahan said...

With seven dogs in the house, five of them basically black and white, it's how I experience letting them in and out the door -- nun falling down stairs.

Kitty Carroll said...

I never thought of a hand held tool as the 'clicker' or other bridge tool such as a whistle for training was a good idea. I also use my mouth, I use my voice, whistles, etc. for training. I know of falconers who use whistles in the field, I think how foolish. If you loose the whistle, where are you then in the field? I've lost hoods, transmitters, etc.

Also, you don't have to shout at your dog. I watch each year a woman, Becky Peterson, of Massachusetts. who demonstrates her working border collies at agricultural fairs. She just talks to them, no shouting, It is a pleasure to be around her dogs and they listen beautifully.

Jonathan Setter said...

Thank you for writing about South Africa in a very interesting context. We have 11 officiall languages here and also several unofficial ones and a few dialects that are a very interesting combination of indigenous languages mixed with the colonial languages of English and French. I dont think clicker training will work very well in a Xhosa speaking household though, too many signals to confuse the dog.

Amongst all these languages, we also have some great working terriers.

have a "lekker"day all