Clickertraining : a different approach to educating-training Boxers.
di Johan Sioen – tradotto in italiano da Piero Piazza

Carried Out from International Boxer Magazine 2000
English version by the author

When the new puppy owner and the experienced SchH trainer come to educating ( or training ) Boxers, in most cases, they have at least one basic conviction in common : the boer must obey the owner and he ( the dog ) is to be “punished” ( one way or another ) if otherwise, in order to behave as the owner desires.

Clicker training offers a different approach. It is a method of learning by way of operant conditioning, the principle of which was established , in experimental settings, by Skinner and his fellow ‘neo-behaviourists” some seventy years ago. There is absolutely nothing mysterious about it. Each animal, and our boxer is no exception, learns by the way his environment reacts on his actions. There is a continuous communication between the animal and his environment. If that environment (in an educatial setting this “environment” means, in the first place: you) responds positively, for instance by supplying food, the action ( behaviour) that triggered the response will be repeated. A psychologist would say: the behaviour is positively reinforced. Food is a (primary) reinforcer, as is your praise or caress or even your attention.

The clicker is a very simple toy children used to play with not such a long time ago. It fits easily into your hand and makes a distinct click sound, when the small metal blade is pushed. The first step in clickertraining -and this can be achieved within minutes- is to transform this toy, the clicker, into a functional communication device: a conditioned reinforcer, by combining it with very small pieces of food. Each click ( at first given randomly – without relation to the boxers behaviour) is followed by a very small piece of food : at first directly after , later on with different intervals . The moment your boxer starts trying to trigger the click sound, you know the connection has been established: click means food means attention means reward. From that point on, the clicker begins to live a live (a meaning) of its own: your boxer will be paying attention to the clicker sound ( and , of course : to you) The sound itself has become a conditioned reinforcer. Not only will your boxer pay attention to the sound, he will be actively searching for it, displaying the vast richness of his behaviorial repertoire. And now is the time to relate the clicker sound to his behaviour.

In traditional training we start from the idea that any exercise (for instance:sit) should be seen as a kind of ideal image, and that any “deviation” from that image should be “corrected”. A psychologist might call this “conditioned aversive control”. In this setting the Boxer is constantly looking for ways to avoid the “correction” (we, humans, do the same). He is learning by avoiding. And most dogs are rather good in this. After all, the avoidance of danger and unease has survival-value. But his attitude will become defensive. And this you will notice in the way he is “working”, or “behaving” in general. All the more so, because, again in general, the other natural way of learning -by imitating other dogs -, is no longer open to him.

In clickertraining we start from the exact opposite idea.We start from tiny bits of “desired” behaviour and reinforce them (by way of clicking-positive reinforcement). Once those particles of behaviour become stabil we start combining them (very slowly) until they form one “act”, one unit of behaviour. Only when this global “act” in turn stabilises, a word (command) is associated to it. From that point on, only the combination word-act is positively reinforced – no longer the act by itself.

Most people find it hard to believe that almost any kind of behaviour an animal (including your Boxer) is physically capable of, can be “shaped” in the way you want it, by means of positive reinforcement. It is true that this method involves a sharp psychological turn on behalf of the trainer: he now is involved in a communication-game with a clear and unambiguous language (clicker-sound means ok), with strict rules and in this respect, and only in this respect, the trainer stands on equal terms with his boxer. In this game there is no place – and no need- for punishment of whatever kind, not even for physical force. As it is the specific behaviour you “click”, that will be “conditioned”, it involves constant concentration and constant (re) – thinking of the goal you want to reach with your boxer, in that particular session.

For instance: exercising a correct, no-touch jump. The sound has to come, not when the boxer starts to jump (and certainly not when you think he will start jumping), not on landing either (although later on you can correct the landingphase with the clicker), but in the actual flight phase itself. Because of the concentration demanded on behalf of the dog and on behalf of the trainer clickersessions are frequent but short.

The shaping of behaviour by way of positive reinforcement is radically different from traditional training. The communication between the trainer and the boxer is the crucial point, and the language used is transparent to both sides. It is gratifying to both partners because each session is a win-win situation. The clicker is instrumental, as a conditioned reinforcer and is that powerful because of its accuracy, is transparency and its capacity of being used in virtually any situation, and -very important- on distance. You do not need a direct physical contact with your boxer to reinforce his behaviour. Furthermore: there are a number of different techniques in clickertraining to eliminate problematic behaviour – again without any physical force or even a scream . One such technique is the shaping of a non-compatible behaviour, another is the application of “time-out” procedures.

The result – be it your petboxer or your SchH-boxer – is a happy boxer, eager to work (learn). This method has results from session number 1 and you do not need to possess a degree in anything – but you need patience, alertness and the will to think. As communication is unavoidable (the first maxim of the Bateson Theory: “it is impossible not to communicate”), you better communicate clear and consequent, in a way that makes both of you happy. Clickertraining has no other end.

The theoretical basis of this method – certainly when compared to its historical opponent, psychoanalysis – is almost disappointingly small, but is solid. A side effect, is the redundancy of all speculation about “instincts”, “drives”, “motives” and their untracable complex interactions in what is usually called “character formation”. Highly experienced trainers and working-people tend to dislike this part of the story. But it is the inner essence and strength of this theory that it does not make any assumption at all concerning the “inside” of your boxer: it only works with behaviour and positive reinforcement of parts of that behaviour in order to shape a different (and desired) behaviour.

It has no pretention at all and no ambition whatsoever to tell you something about the ” inner structure “, the character of your boxer . This speculation – no matter how exciting – is left to others or to you , if you feel the need. In the end effect this simple technique will show you a happy working boxer. Not a dominated, aggressively stimulated and controlled dog.

When training dolphins, Karen Pryor realised she could not fysically control them: it simply was not possible to fysically punish or reward them. So, she and her collegueas worked out , in the course of many yaers , this method, by applying Skinner’s principle. I for one feel very grateful towards this lady for having had the idea , the motivation and the energy to apply her method onto dogs. Our boxers should have the opportunity to profit from her experience.

Johan Sioen