The Ugly Side of Clicker Training

Clicker training is awesome. I can 100% vouch for that, because I see the results firsthand every day.  But like all things, it can be a bad thing in the wrong hands. The bad reputation that clicker training has earned is due to the technique that uses a clicker, not because of the clicker itself. Just like the classic "the bit is not a weapon, it is the hand that wields it" or however those things go! Here is some information on how to keep clicker training a positive experience, and some stories about some struggles I've had to figure out.

The Problem

Pushy animals. Greedy, pushy, dangerous. While this might not be a huge deal if you are working with cats or small dogs, it becomes a huge deal when working with horses. If your horse is walking on top of you while grabbing for treats, you are not creating a safe learning environment. All animals, including humans, should have respect for personal space. No member of any species should be putting another in harms way when it can be avoided, it is that simple.

Another problem that is feared is dependency, where the animal you are working with cannot perform without the use of a clicker. This problem I find to be a bit of a myth, because the clicker does not cue anything! The clicker is just serving as your voice, so while I do think your furry friends may have more difficulty learning something new in the absence of a clicker after growing accustomed to the clarity of the clicker, I do not think anyone could grow to depend on the clicker to perform. HOWEVER, I will say that my horse Tucker will play with me for a longer period of time if I am using a clicker. The reason for this is because I am terrible at being consistent with just my voice, so if I'm not using the clicker I tend to be even more confusing than I am with a clicker 😉

The Solution

Respect. You must teach respect before you can expect to receive any from your animals. I do not mean to beat fear into your animals to gain respect, but rather you should earn the respect by teaching your animals what you expect from them. When everyone plays nice, everyone is happy. When they don't play nice, for the love of oats don't reward them. This is the biggest mistake I think I see people make, and the biggest mistake I make quite regularly. Some of the naughty things my animals do are just so adorable and non-offensive to me, that it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Be smart and think about all the little things your pets do and that you do, and what the consequences of those actions are on their behavior.

Unintentional Training

Ever heard the saying that everything you do with an animal is training? Well, it's true! You will teach animals, and people, things completely unintentionally. It is inevitable. For example, when I leave my dogs for an excruciating 1 hour, they are SO excited to see me when I return. I'm excited to see them too, so of course I greet them with my annoying "happy voice" and immediately welcome all 100+ total pounds of dog into my arms. This is not what I should do, and I know that. I don't let other people behave this way around them, and luckily they're smart enough to know the difference most of the time. If I wanted perfectly behaved dogs, though, I would definitely need to stop this bad habit of mine.

If you think about your personal behaviors and how they "train" those around you, you might be surprised by how much influence you have! I think I have my boyfriend trained pretty well, all I have to do to get him to change the litter boxes is say "hm, when did we last clean the litter boxes?"

When I first started working with Tucker, he started to have a biting problem. He would bite literally everything, including me. I didn't know what to do and had very few resources at the time. I tried methods I read about in books and online, but the wealth of online knowledge was smaller than it is today and I had no one to ask for help. So one day I took a step back and looked at myself, at what I did when I was around him. And you know what I realized? I unintentionally taught him to bite me. I was obsessed with his soft horsey nose, I mean aren't we all? I touched it every chance I got, and would play with his muzzle often. So, I consciously decided NOT to touch his muzzle. I avoided touching his nose completely and stopped trying to "fix his behavior" and before I realized it was working, we never had a biting incident again. Sure, this could have been a coincidence and something else may have happened to end the behavior, but I don't think so. I've found that in some situations, avoiding the problem actually does solve the problem. If only that were the case for everything, right?

How to Teach a Horse Not to Grab

Coming back to clicker training, this is particularly apparent when you use a treat pouch to reward your horse. My horses are guilty of this behavior, and we often have to revisit the lesson of "don't touch the treat pouch" when the three of us work together. Something about Tucker and Trubee together makes them so much more mischievous than either of them are alone! Treat grabbing is a gateway behavior to pushiness and biting, and overall rudeness. It is unintentionally rewarded when horses reach towards the pouch to meet your hand halfway with the treat. You will gradually start reaching your hand less, and soon you'll be feeding the treats to your horse immediately outside the pouch. The way I like to combat this behavior is by only feeding the treat far away from my body, or by having them hold a headset that I've taught them to hold while I give them the treat. This step is both another fun trick to do, and serves as a way to teach them that grabbing the pouch does not get them anything.

Both my horses are naturally teeth grabbers versus lip grabbers, too, so if they are trying to take a treat from me with their teeth I will rotate my hand and only allow them to take the treat with their lips instead. Or I will wait until they're calmer before giving a treat, but this only works because they know that teeth are bad. I don't recommend this to people who aren't quick with their hands, because I'm really good at avoiding their teeth but I still get pinched sometimes! If your horse is a teeth grabber like mine, it might be safest to reward with treats from a bucket or in a solid form that they lick.

2 thoughts on “The Ugly Side of Clicker Training”

  1. An excellent post! Well said. I’m an advocate for clicker training but I always tell people don’t you dare start until you read some books and watch some videos or have a professional assist you. 🙂

    1. I definitely agree! All training is easy to mess up if you don’t know what you’re doing. I know this from experience of not knowing what I’m doing haha 😉

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