When Clicking Goes Wrong

Posted on 09/24/09 11 Comments


To follow up on yesterday’s post today I will describe some lulu screw ups caused by my disrespect of the power of the clicker.  To quote Bob Bailey “What you click is what you get.” Now this sounds pretty simple but you really need to think about every single click you make; what the dog was doing, how good was your timing and what would you be communicating if you continued to click that same response over and over.


I used a clicker to shape Buzzy’s weave poles, as I described in my book Shaping Success. Remember this was long before I came up with the 2×2 method to train weaves. Think about shaping 3 poles, when would you click? Of course when

Buzzy's trademark screaming upon exiting stay with him throughout his career.
Buzzy's trademark screaming upon exiting the poles stayed with him throughout his career.

 the dog finishes what he is doing or in other words as he exits the last pole.  Now think about what I said in that paragraph, what would happen if you were to continually click the same spot over and over.  You create over-importance or too much value in the dog’s mind for just that one piece of the behaviour chain. By the time I had finished training Buzzy to weave 12 poles he had inadvertently learned to drive hard and fast through 10 poles and slow down so he could stop and target the side of his face and scream at the top of his lungs at the last pole.  He actually would come to a complete stop and wait for his click before he moved out of the poles. It took some doing to un-train that c.r.a.p.

This wasn’t my first screw up with a clicker, nor my last. Many years before, in the early ’90’s when teaching my first Border Collie “Stoni” to do a go-out (or send away) for obedience my goal was to train her to drive across the ring and  touch the wall with her front paws. Before I knew it I had created a dog that did a spread eagle on the wall and wouldn’t get off!


I have seen many students create bizarre behaviours while using a clicker when attempting to shape their dog to back up.  The problem is you just don’t need a tool that is that precise to teach most things your dog needs to learn. 


The trouble when training with a clicker is that you don’t really know what you are teaching unless you carefully analyze each of your dog’s responses and even then by the time you have created the C.R.A.P, you have reinforced that crap so much you then need to come up with a new training plan to un-do the crap!  Been there done that let me tell you!  Only the dog really knows what the click is isolating no matter how much you wish you were both on the same training page.  I have decided I am not a good enough dog trainer to use a clicker for everything and I will respect its power and only take it out once and a while (I try to do it at least once a month to keep my mechanics sharp).


Using a word rather than a click to mark responses while shaping gives you some leeway. Your dog has a range of behaviour to zone in on rather than a ultra thin slice of the response that the click is isolating.  Remember what you think you are training is not always what the dog knows he is learning! 


Now what I am about to tell you is not science (am very specific to mention this as all of my training is science based). However this next bit of information has been observationally learned, therefore  its accuracy has not been validated or disproved in a laboratory (that I know of). 


One of the many reason I am very specific about “when” I will chose to use a clicker in training and this is that I have observed using a clicker while training actually increases some dog’s desire to vocalize. This next part may sound anthropomorphic so go ahead and jump all over me,  but to me it is almost as if the clicker becomes an auditorial judgment to the dog. He gets more and more frustrated while to trying to get us to produce the click and this frustration often results in vocalization. Producing the sound of the clicker seems to actually become more valuable to the dog than the food you are presenting after the click. I have seen many dogs exhibit this behaviour (all of them where high drive dogs btw).


To me it all came to a climax when we introduced dogs here to the behaviour of nose targeting an electronic target about 7 years ago (yes long before you could buy one:)). Classical conditioning taught these dogs that when they produce the beeping sound (which is the same idea as the sound of the clicker) with their nose on the target, a food reward would be produced. It didn’t take long before some dog actually got so intent on creating the beep that they wouldn’t stop to take the reward for producing it. The reward became and inconvenience to these dogs as they worked fervidly to create the sound. Classical conditioning had turned around and now the value of the beep was greater than the value of the food that created the value for the beep in the first place!  


This is a dangerous place to be, and perhaps I will address it more in the future, but you always want your toys, treats, and interaction from you to trump any value the dog can earn from work. I will share with your at a later date how to maintain that balance. 


Today I am grateful for the smile I got by posting that picture of a much younger Buzz in the weave poles. Buzz turned 13 years young while I was away last week. I told him when I got home “all rules are gone now buddy!”  however his hearing has gotten so bad that he looked at me as if to say “whose drool on John looks funny?”  Dogs crack me up.


  1. Naomi den Hartog says:
    Sunday, September 27, 2009 at 2:49pm

    You did it again! There so many times I think mmm… that might indeed be true. I think it definetly deserves some thought as to click or not to click. And the vocalizing of my pup (18 wks) during shaping might just be what you described. Thank you for giving me stuff to think about- I like that!


  2. Jenny Ruth Yasi says:
    Sunday, September 27, 2009 at 9:39am

    I love reading your blog! So thought provoking! Thank you for writing that.


  3. Nancy Walker says:
    Thursday, September 24, 2009 at 4:26pm

    The scream……………..yes that high pitched scream! The first time my puppy produced that noise I thought what the heck…….. are you ok? But for some strange reason I realized what brought it on and stopped using my clicker. I also had to stop doing hand touches because he would do the same thing for a hand touch. However, after some time passed I did bring the clicker back out and found that he no longer reacts to the clicker the same way. I am not sure if just letting him mature a little had anything to do with it but I can now use my clicker and ask for a hand touch with out the neighbors looking out their back door to see who is being killed.


  4. Renee says:
    Thursday, September 24, 2009 at 1:53pm

    Sorry, forgot my name. Post above, Renee King


  5. Renee says:
    Thursday, September 24, 2009 at 1:52pm

    Interesting Susan. Good thoughts to ponder and thanks for sharing. BTW, congrats on your runs in Austria!!!! I hope you and Encore had a BLAST!

    You said “you always want your toys, treats, and interaction from you to trump any value the dog can earn from work.” While I certainly agree with this, I would be interested to know more of your thoughts. I have always loved that my dogs would work for other people…whether it be behavior cues, agility, or herding. So I wonder, does this mean that my dogs find more value in the work than me? Of couse, none of my dogs really do agility equipment without cues and prompts…so I can see that it is the interaction between human and dog that drives that. BUT, I know my BC would swim and work sheep with no human present. Of course, he would attempt to bring the sheep to a person….so maybe that is not a good example. But with no human present, I think he would still work the stock.

    Hhhhhhmmmm. Interesting. I like it when I have to think….thanks and would love to hear further comments from you and others.


  6. Kathy Smith says:
    Thursday, September 24, 2009 at 1:40pm

    Here is a quick one… my newest competition dog would not look at his first jump naturally like my others did so I had to shape the head turn. Well I waited and when he turned his head I clicked. It worked beautifully from a distance and took no time for him to understand it.

    However, when I am in close and want him to look at his first jump he waits and stares at me and then “flicks” his head away from me and stares back. He thinks the behaviour is a flick of his head the opposite way from me… looks like a freakin’ muscle spasm… TOO FUNNY! Thank goodness I only see it once in a while now. He will literally turn his head away and quickly look at the wall and then turn it back when he did this.

    My newest member of the family I shaped verbally and he targets the obstacle in front of him beautifully.

    To me this is SO interesting! Thinking dogs are fascinating.

    Kathy Smith


  7. Devora says:
    Thursday, September 24, 2009 at 12:23pm

    Happy Birthday Dear Buzz! I once had the dubious privilege of you spraying me with slobber as you went by me on course. Fell in love with your exuberance right then and there.

    Susan, this explains very nicely why my “clicker board” got broken by overuse. Thanks as always for the insights!


  8. Lynn says:
    Thursday, September 24, 2009 at 12:04pm

    To get a continuous back, try having your dog target their back feet to a mat (anything that has an obviously different texture than the ground you’re working on). Start very close and gradually work up distance. You can use a clicker or whatever marker you want (I tend to use a mouth click), but it gives the dog an easy to identify (for both of you) goal — two back paws on the mat. (Although initially, I’d reward even one paw.)


  9. Cindy says:
    Thursday, September 24, 2009 at 10:16am

    As someone who’s been involved in agility since 1998, I am just now trying the clicker as part of my training with my dogs. I have always used a marker work instead of a clicker, mainly because I feel it was too much for my brain to handle watching the dog, holding the leash, holding the food and clicking the clicker! And I will always have my mouth with me when the dog does something brilliant! I have been hesitant, wanting to get rid of it as soon as I see my dog understanding the behavior I was shaping. I enjoyed reading Shaping Success and I look forward to future clicker training tips!


  10. Andrea says:
    Thursday, September 24, 2009 at 8:56am

    I can also comment to a dog potentially vocalizing more when I used a clicker. When I tried to shape things with Peso with a clicker he would bark at me and whine and carry on. I stopped doing much shaping with him as it seemed to get him way too over aroused. After doing skills camp with Phoenix I decided to try shaping some of the exercises with Peso and there was no vocalizing, he still gets frantic and offers like crazy but no barking and come to think of it I don’t think much whining either. Now it could just be that my skills were better or some other factor. I’ll have to get a clicker out with him again and see if he produces the vocalizing again.


  11. Cindy says:
    Thursday, September 24, 2009 at 8:47am

    Funny you mention the back. Several of us in class are having so many problems getting the back. I am sure that it’s from misuse of the clicker. But I am confused on how to get a continous back, that is keep backing until I tell you to stop. Probably using the clicker incorrectly has them doing all kinds of weird things except going back!


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