Hi Sarah, I have a couple of questions. I’ve had two sessions – two nights in a row, where the owner’s timing is way off. I was trying to find ways of helping them to improve their timing, do you have any suggestions?
Secondly, do you ever encounter people who are simple clicker dyslexic? If their timing is just that awful, do you think it is something they will work out or do you use a different tactic?
Thanks! ~ Krista M.
Hi Krista! Thanks for taking the time to write.
To answer your questions it’s not uncommon to find people who’s timing with a clicker is not great. Most people, however, will improve with some practice.
For the average person the mechanical skills that are involved with dog training are completely foreign to them. That is why I like to break these things down into very small steps. It may seem easy to a pro, but for someone who isn’t practiced clicking, treat delivery, and leash handling can be overwhelming.
Specifically with the clicker I teach it step by step – starting with simply holding the clicker, then practice timing before adding in treat delivery to the whole picture. Treat delivery is a skill in it’s own and it is practiced first without the clicker so that people can practice quiet/neutral hands, different neutral pre-click hand positions, and get treat delivery smooth before adding another layer of complexity. Once people have had a chance to play with that and the clicker on it’s own, food is added in to that mix. Just like good dog training, things are broken down into achievable steps and difficulty is increased gradually at levels the learned can easy master.
Timing is best practiced first without the extra complexity of food delivery. There are a few exercises I will commonly use to help people with their timing and observation skills: On the Ball, The Hand Game, and Click the Change. On the Ball involves throwing a ball into the air, instructing your pupil to click when the ball is at the highest point. You can also have them practice using a verbal marker “yes” and try “good dog” here to nicely illustrate the precision offered by a clicker. The Hand Game is simple, but fun and also effective. Instruct your student to click when both of your hands have all five fingers fully extended – your hands can be in any position but they only click when both hands have all the fingers extended. When they get good at this, you can try to trick them. Click the Change is a good one for people to try at home. They can sit with the clicker while they watch TV and try to click whenever the camera angle changes. To save them from becoming completely annoyed, you can suggest they do this during the commercial breaks.
There are many benefits to using a clicker or other salient marker especially for a novice trainer, so I do like to try to get people comfortable and proficient using one. New trainers often are not adept at communicating clearly with their body language or verbally, so the clicker can provide that much needed clarity to the dog. It has been my experience that if people can get moderately proficient at using a clicker during the foundation stages that they are more consistent with marking than if they are first taught using a verbal marker (this could be because I am better at teaching people to use a clicker than a marker word, however), which in turn causes their dog to learn skills faster. It is simply physically and mentally easier for us to push a button than it is to make a word come out of our mouth – that is one reason why new trainers can be more consistent with a clicker. There is also some evidence showing that animals not only learn faster with a clicker but they also retain skills taught with one for longer.
That being said, there has been the odd person that simply cannot grasp the clicker. Even with breaking things down and practice their timing is so awful that using the clicker is actually detrimental. With someone like that I will definitely just teach them to use a verbal marker – their chances of being closer to the target behaviour are much better. This is one instance where the precision of a clicker will not be a good thing and a slightly sloppier verbal marker will be preferential. Of course you run the risk of them not being very good at marking consistently, but it is better than no marker at all. For most skills we are going to teach the average companion dog, a very marker will definitely be suitable to get the job done. While there certainly are multiple benefits to using a clicker especially with a novice handler, I am not married to it. Being able to be flexible to meet your client’s needs is very important. I will never force my students to use a clicker, but I do ask them to at least try it. If they really do not like it, I will instruct them to use a verbal marker instead. Generally once they move out of Foundations classes they wean the dog off the clicker and use a verbal marker anyways.
I hope that answers your questions. Thanks for writing and until next time happy training!