German Shepherd Dogs are widely considered one of the most versatile breeds. Herding, military work, personal protection, police dogs, scent detection [bomb, drugs], search and rescue, and service animals are just some of the jobs GSDs are capable of doing well. They are capable of doing almost anything asked of them, I sort of feel the same way about Clicker Training. It is so extremely versatile and the sky is truly the limit with what you can do with the little noise box.
Clicker Training is obviously an excellent method for trick training–since there are no concerns about being punished for making a mistake, dogs offer many different behaviors just trying to earn a click. As they offer different behaviors, the clicker allows you to mark something that happens in a split second and make it very clear exactly what they are being rewarded for. Tongue flicks, lip curls, the peak of a jump (like with marine mammals) are just some of the behaviors that require split second timing. It also sets up plenty of opportunities to allow the dog to think and figure out what is being asked of it–there is no pushing the rump down into a sit, no dragging them into heel position. They take a step towards my left side *click treat* they take another step *click treat* working our way into the desired behavior. While shaping or capturing a behavior like this, they are thinking and making choices–just trying to figure it out!
Though clearly a great tool for trick training, it’s also a fantastic tool for teaching obedience behaviors. Some people say Clicker Training is just a gimmick for tricks and can’t be used to teach open or advanced level obedience. This is completely untrue. I have yet to encounter a behavior that cannot be trained with a clicker–even behaviors that are typically taught with a heavy hand. One of the cool features of Clicker training is that you can shape a behavior and continue to increase the difficulty of the criteria. For instance, if you are teaching an auto sit to heel, at first you can click simply stopping when you stop, then clicking only for a sit (regardless of position), then you only click for a sit on your left side, then a sit right next to your leg, and then a forward-facing straight sit. Here’s a recent video of Rio learning an Open level obedience behavior drop on recall and a mid-level moving down.
If that’s not enough for ya’, Clicker Training is also a fantastic tool for working with behavior modification plans. Reactive? Fearful? Resource guarding? All of these behavior concerns, and more, can be improved using modification plans that include Clicker Training. Classical conditioning is often a first step in modifying behavior but the next step is keeping the dog operant (able to think/work) in stressful situations. What’s so interesting about the Click is that it actually starts to alter brain chemistry. So, a dog who is operant (working) in a stressful situation is being effected by having a good experience with whatever concerns them, is learning to focus on their handler when stressed, and, if using a clicker, they are altering their brain chemistry in the stressful situation in a positive way. There really is so much hope for people with “project” dogs. Instead of correcting out the display (which is a traditional method), you change the way the dog feels about the stimulus so they don’t feel the need to react anymore. It’s the difference between covering a tattoo with make-up (masking it) and actually having it removed.
When I brought Shayne home she was a very underweight and timid dog who I was informed had food aggression issues. She was terrified of almost everything… I had to “click” her way into the car, through door thresholds, on the tile/hardwood, and up/down stairs. Well, once she got some weight on, her issues multiplied like whoa–she started having fear aggressive responses to men, was too fearful to interact with women, and after two bad incidents with dogs she stared having some major fear issues with other dogs (she was not super comfortable with them in the first place). For over two years now, she has been the most human friendly dog–she’s not super interested in snuggling with strangers but she loves to say hi to ALL people. In just the last year (after 4 years of work) she’s become more like a normal dog with other dogs…while she doesn’t like over the top crazy dogs (they still scare her) she can get along with dogs who are pretty chill and respect her somewhat large space bubble and tolerate her pushiness (though, as I found out… if a dog she knows gives an appropriate level correction she will listen). She now has many doggie friends and I’m confident enough with her social-ness to look into start fostering.
All of these things and more were possible through Clicker Training. Its versatility is why I think it’s a great training tool and why I think it’s a great mechanical skill to have–if you have mechanics of clicking for tricks you have the mechanics to click for behavior modification if the need presents itself!