Using Clicker Training Versus Being a Clicker Trainer

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 7 of 12

Using Clicker Training
Science, relationship, repertoire, persistence are the four main elements that go into the creation of clicker super glue. That was the focus of the previous post.  Put these four things together, and you will have someone who shifts from simply giving clicker training a quick look to someone who is actively using clicker training on a routine basis.  But that still doesn’t mean someone is a clicker trainer.

This is not a judgement about who is technically the better trainer.  You can be very skilled and consider yourself a user of clicker training, not a clicker trainer.  These labels refer more to the mindset that you bring to training and the impact that this has on both your training choices and your learner.

It can also be a description of where you are in the learning process.  No one starts out as a clicker trainer.  We all start out by taking a look and seeing if it is of interest.  Then we gradually move from seeing it as a tool, to seeing it more as the organizing framework for our training.

A great example of someone who actively uses clicker training – and uses it very well – but is not a clicker trainer would be Bob Bailey.  Bob has had a long and very distinguished career as a trainer.  In the fifties when open ocean work with dolphins was first being developed, he headed up the Navy’s training program.  He moved on to become the Project Manager and later Vice President and General Manager of Animal Behavior Enterprises, the company founded by Marian and Keller Breland, two of B.F. Skinner’s graduate students. In the early 1990’s when the dog community discovered clicker training, people were hungry for teachers.  They drew Bob out of retirement to give his now famous chicken training workshops.

Yes, you read that right – chicken training workshops.  Bob used chickens to teach people the science upon which clicker training is based.

Bob will tell you he uses clicker training because it is the most efficient, effective training method he knows, but if he found something that worked better, he would change in a heartbeat.  He is very much a user of clicker training.  By his own self-labeling, he is not a clicker trainer.

In a completely different category,  there are people who call themselves clicker trainers but whose understanding of what that means is light years away from what I mean.  Yes, they may click and treat, but they also cling to the need to punish their animals.  The dog gets a reward for sitting when he’s told to, but if he doesn’t sit fast enough – or worse – if he offers some other behavior, out come the corrections.  Using a clicker most definitely does not make you a clicker trainer.

The Clicker Umbrella

clicker umbrella 1
When I talk about clicker training, I often refer to the image of a huge umbrella under which a wide variety of training methods and solutions fit.  No one of these training strategies by itself defines clicker training.  You might rely heavily on targeting, but that is only one of many training strategies.  You could also use freeshaping or luring to form the behavior you want.

Pressure and release of pressure can fit comfortably under the umbrella.  If I want to figure out the answer to a treasure hunt, clues are welcome.  You’re getting warmer, you’re getting colder.  That’s the function of pressure in a clicker world.  The pressure is not escalated into a do-it-or-else threat.  It is information only.  It offers hints that help the learner get to the reinforcement faster.

If pressure remains at a level where it is information and never a threat, then even very traditional horse training techniques such as advance and retreat procedures can be modified and adapted to fit under my clicker umbrella.

So it isn’t the teaching strategy itself that determines if something fits under the clicker umbrella, but how it is used.  That includes not just pressure and release of pressure, but even targeting and feeshaping.  You can be using the tools of clicker training without really being a clicker trainer.  What does all this mean?  What is it that makes someone just a user of clicker training and not what I mean when I say someone is a clicker trainer?

Just Because You Can . . .
Ethics matter.  Here the mantra becomes:

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Using a marker signal and treats, I could easily teach a horse to stay oriented between two targets.  If I slowly raise the targets up higher and higher, I can get the horse to rear.  With a little practice I could teach that horse to balance on his hind legs and walk the length of the arena.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.  Standing up on his hind legs like that can’t be good for the long term health of a horse’s hocks.  I might be able to teach this kind of circus-trick behavior, but I can’t imagine ever doing so.

You could easily get a yearling to jump over large fences at liberty, but again just because you can doesn’t mean you should.  The same considerations apply to older horses.  Should you be asking a horse with arthritic hocks to work at speed or to travel long distances on a horse trailer?  What we want and what our horses need are not always the same thing.

With the clicker you can train many things.  It’s not enough that you are using positive reinforcement to get a job done.  We need to consider not just HOW something is trained, but WHAT we are training.

There are lots of behaviors that look impressive, but they are hard on the individual.  It may simply be that the people who are teaching them have not fully thought out what they are doing.  They are still in the phase where they are excited by the behaviors they can train.  They aren’t yet looking at the broader picture of the animal’s long-term welfare.

Experienced clicker trainers include a consideration of balance – both physical and emotional – in everything they train. They are looking at how the behavior benefits the animal now and in the future.

just because you're using R+Good intentions are not enough.  Just because you are using positive reinforcement does not mean your animal is having a positive learning experience.  If you are fumbling around trying to get your treats out of your pocket, if your timing is off, or you are inconsistent in your criterion, your animal could be having a very frustrating time.  Instead of being clear, you’re surfing a giant extinction wave that leaves a wake of confusion behind you.

To prevent this your learner needs you to have:

  • the science to know how to create and carry out a shaping plan.
  • the relationship to care about his emotional well-being.
  • the repertoire to be adaptive to his learning needs.
  • the persistence to develop your own good handling skills.

That’s what creates clicker super glue and a complete clicker trainer.

Coming Next: More Questions

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:          

4 thoughts on “Using Clicker Training Versus Being a Clicker Trainer

  1. I’m definitely a regular user of the clicker because it works & it’s fun! I can’t personally understand how you could use punishment alongside but hey ho. There are certain phrases of yours that stick in my head ( from much reading of your book!) & I do like ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’. We’ve had some frustrations along the way which needed me to ‘go and have a cup of tea'(!) and take a few steps back. My weakness is the science of the shaping plan; there have been significant improvements in other areas though. The great thing is that the clicker journey is dynamic, it changes and evolves and one day you’re with your horse and think ‘yes, we can do this!’ And there are times when other things need a bit more working out. My main aim is to have a happy, fit horse that looks beautiful, who hopefully enjoys his life & sees me as a positive 😊


    • With regards to clicker training and punishment, to the best of my recollection, Karen Pryor parted ways with Gary Wilkes because he used a “bonker” (rolled up towel that I think he threw) to stop behavior (punishment) with dogs. People do it because they’re trying to stop a behavior and can’t think of how to do so by rewarding something or think punishment is faster/better. In Gary’s case he sees it as a way to get to a clickable behavior faster by stopping an undesirable behavior. Another factor is probably that he’s been doing this for decades and it works for him. For a lot of people it’s an ethical issue. Is it ever right to use punishment to train when you can use reinforcement? I would guess Gary would say yes and Karen would say no.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s