I am a Clucker Trainer

Some claim that there is a new fad running rampant through dog training circles.

It is based on some of that sciencey stuff by Pavlov, Skinner, Watson and Thorndike.  A few well-known trainers such as Breland, Keller and Bailey furthered this fancy stuff by using geeky science outside the lab, causing this new age stuff to proliferate to the dog owning public.

Perhaps you have heard of some of these fads.  You’ll recognize these fancy methods because they use terms such as positive reinforcement, desensitization, counterconditioning and the charming though less scientific term clicker training… among others.  Some feel that these will quickly pass.

I’m still waiting.

It should happen at any moment.  After all, this fad has been around for at least 162 years.  Yes, you read that correctly.

One hundred sixty two years of “fancy” training and counting.

In 1882, S.T. Hammond published, “Practical Dog Training or Training vs. Breaking.”  It begins by saying….

“The system of dog training described in this book is a new one…This system is humane and rational.  It is also practical and efficient.”

Hammond’s book comes after 30 years of him using these techniques.  Do not jump to the conclusion that Practical Dog Training is a book for lunching ladies and their lap dogs.  It is a hunting dog manual.  Many of the exercises are similar if not identical to exercises done today using positive reinforcement and classical conditioning.  Hammond even suggests in places that people “cluck” prior to giving a piece of meat.  I suppose you could say that Hammond was a clucker trainer.


I thought I would share a few excerpts from Practical Dog Training.  If we stick to the strict definitions of the quadrants, not all of the exercises are positive reinforcement and classical conditioning.  Hammond’s book is heavily weighted in that direction.

On Clucking and Treating

“….as soon as his attention is fixed upon the meat, and he looks at it steadily for a second, release your hold and cluck to him as a signal that he can now have it….”

Getting a Dog Accustomed to Gun Shots

“…take the pans to quite a distance from his pen…..When it is time to feed him we go to the pans….we give a stroke just loud enough for him to hear plainly and at once proceed to his pen and give him his feed.  By pursuing this course for a few days and gradually going a little closer every time, he will become accustomed to the sound, and learning that the noise is connected with our coming, and also his dinner, he soon gets used to it, and in a short time will stand the racket without flinching….”

Whistle Recalls

“We think it a very good plan to always have in our pocket something good for him to eat, and when he minds this long note (whistle) and comes in quickly, we reward him with a bit of something substantial as well as with fine words.”

Back chaining a fetch

“In this lesson especial care must be had that each successive step is well and thoroughly learned before proceeding any further.  Thus when you have succeeded in getting him to take a step or two toward you, do not try him at a longer distance until he has had considerable practice at this, and will readily come the one step or two at the word, “bring”;….”

 Fear of Water

“If he shows no inclination to wet his feet you will find it a very good plan to hold a piece of meat over the water where it is but an inch or two deep, and where he cannot get it without putting his feet in….he will learn that it will not hurt him … You should never throw him in no matter how much you feel disposed to do so, but rather let him find out for himself that water will not hurt him, and he will soon lose all fear.”

If we stop to think about it, it is absurd to think that pre-Pavlov, humans could only comprehend or use punishment and coercion.  Using food, as the book points out, is “rational”.  It’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to think that no one, ever, in history ever noticed that animals would work for food or make associations – that it was “discovered” in a lab.

I do not mean to insult or diminish what scientists and pioneers of dog training gave us.  If anything, I think that they gave us something far more important.  We risk diminishing some of their contributions.

  • They gave us a common language.
  • They taught us the details of how to us learning theory and conditioning effectively.
  • They applied those scientific lessons to real life situations and shared that knowledge with those who want to train better.

“Sciencey” terms such as desensitization and positive reinforcement help us better communicate with other professionals.  Guidance from training greats, who applied the science help us train more effectively.

We use OLD dog training methods, based in positive reinforcement and conditioning better because of NEWER information on HOW it works.  That does not mean that positive reinforcement, desensitization or counterconditioing is new, nor is it a fad.  It has been around for far too long to be a fad.

Positive reinforcement not a fad
Trainers who used positive reinforcement before it had a name deserve some recognition.  At least, they deserve a little humility from us.  When it comes to the practical aspects of dog training, not much has changed.  Much of what Hammond wrote would easily flow in a Facebook dialogue on dog training today.

Maybe it is time we stopped bickering about who thought it first.  If we look back across the ages, science describes what we’ve done all along using only a handful of terms:  Reinforcement, punishment, conditioning, extinction, habituation, flooding.  All that we do regardless of training methodology, can be described with the language of the training greats who defer to science.  There is not much new under the sun.

I feel it is apropos to raise a glass and say, “I am a clucker trainer!”  It is not a fad.  Get used to it.  It is practical, effective and rational.  Mad respect to the observational skills of the trainers of old who recognized a good thing when they saw it.  Thanks to the pioneers who taught us how to do it well.

For those who want to read Hammond’s book, it’s available online by clicking (or should I say clucking?) here.

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16 thoughts on “I am a Clucker Trainer

  1. “Punishment training” teaches children/dogs/husbands/politicians the lesson that the real crime is ‘getting caught’. And THAT is what the ‘guilty’ expression is all about. Of course our poor dogs cannot really understand just WHAT they were caught out doing! which makes them even MORE ‘guilty looking’. (I always KNEW when my son was guilty, because he looked so innocent. When he looked guilty I knew he was innocent.

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  4. Thanks so much. I’m a “modern scientist” (microbiology). Included with basic research is still the need for logic and (gasp!) common sense.
    It seems to me some of the modern trainers are a bit rigid in the latter.
    I read a blog that said that dogs do not feel “guilt”, rather they associate getting into trouble with the fact that a cute face will make mom not get mad (nutshell version). I thought this was perhaps semantics and that if you look up “guilt” in the dictionary it covers this very issue “a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.” If your 4yo child did the same thing, there would be no hesitation saying the child felt guilty while the action/reactions were the very same. I pointed this out and got some journal articles and side logic back. There was a recent journal article that proves that dogs can feel “jealousy”, perhaps one on “guilt” won’t be far away.

    • Interesting point. Someone should look at that “imagined” point. Do people feel guilty when they have done nothing wrong? I think (from a personal opinion POV) that yes, one can feel guilty and not know if you did something wrong or not.
      Which would mean the question might be better phrased as, “Do dogs feel remorse for their own actions and comprehend that they have done something wrong?”
      If we go with guilt from imagined grievances, then it still doesn’t tie action to guilt and probably not something we can use to ascertain that the dog “knew” they were wrong.
      But fair point in that perhaps the someone needs to study it more…..

      • Bark Out Loud!!!
        “Which would mean the question might be better phrased as, “Do dogs feel remorse for their own actions and comprehend that they have done something wrong?””
        That’s pretty much *verbatim* what I said before I got the journal articles back to me refuting that definition as well! 🙂 Tried just now to find the post but could not.

        • I think social media is fraught with people who are trying to talk over one another. But actually I think that we’re in the era of the one hit wonder study. Not that a study is ever bad. Even if it’s “bad” it tells us what we did wrong.
          But the idea that you can pull A study and PROVE something is not actually very sciencey at all.
          We should be looking at the body of research and the critiques by other teams. Many studies that confirm one another seem to come from members of the same team.
          Which doesn’t mean good or bad. Just….hmmmmm.
          Your post made me go hmmmmm. 🙂 You expressed a point without being condescending. Works for me!

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  7. Great article! I had not heard of this book until i read your article and now I am enjoying reading the book itself, it’s so fascinating. Thank you.

  8. Reblogged this on Delightful Doggies and commented:
    I loved this blog SO MUCH I just HAD to reblog it! I’ve often heard clicker training/positive reinforcement critics say “it’s just a fad.” This proves their argument and negative attitude moot! This is a wonderful read I hope you enjoy!
    Laura
    Owner, Delightful Doggies

  9. Hear hear! Every day I am so grateful to those pioneers, who have provided a framework within which every behaviour and training conundrum can be addressed. If in doubt, take it back to first principles …

    Just a note on a typo, Hammonds book was written in 1892, but your piece states 1992.

    Brilliant blog, thank you so much.

    Helen Greenley

  10. Thank you a thousand times for this. It’s been a pet peeve of mine for ages that people call clicker training and/or positive reinforcement-based training “modern.” Um yeah, but….

    Thanks for the historical perspective and valuable info in this post.

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