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Click vs. Word: Calming a Stressed Dog

From  Sophie S.:

Last week I noticed another situation in which there is a distinct difference between clicker training (using a marker signal!) and giving goodies without a clear-cut signal: calming a stressed dog.

Let me give you an example. I've been a clicker trainer for about three years now, but I never clicked my aunt's shepherd-Doberman mix (now 10 years old). Mascha's history is this: My aunt saved her from being put down, because her previous owner wanted to get rid of her. She was then six months old. He also probably hit her.

I always gave Mascha treats without a click for stuff she already knew. But it was really no fun, because any command made her so stressed. When for example I told her to lie down she was especially nervous and often she broke the down. When I gave her commands, even though she already knew what they meant, she became so nervous, she rolled on her back and started to whine.

Last Xmas I decided to start clicker training her. I clicked her for sitting and I lured her down a few times and then clicked her for offering me this position. However I never gave her the learned commands! In one session she was able to stay down even when I put food right next to her on the floor; at the same time I clicked her for looking into my eyes. I know some normal dogs that get stressed during this exercise, but she didn't show me any sign of stress, she even really enjoyed the whole process!

The next time I saw her—on April 12th—she greeted me with a sit! (Usually she nearly knocks me down the stairs.) When I took her for a walk she repeatedly crashed down at my feet, offering me the down I had taught her three and a half months earlier. And she was happy!

I think clicker training was so helpful for her because:

  • She can control a part of her world. Maybe this is the most important lesson of all for a fearful dog that has learned his environment is unpredictable.
  • She feels safe in the sit or down position (because she is so sure that she is doing it right. The clicker explained it to her). And you can calm her down, when she gets stressed, by using a new cue, not the old command.
  • In clicker training I can tell her at once that she is doing it right. So she isn't confused which might easily lead to stress.
  • With this dog it was very important that the click doesn't carry any emotion. Because she would get stressed even if you praise her!

Karen Pryor says: I think this is a good example of a dog that has experienced "poisoned" cues. The command "sit" or "down" might be followed by praise, but it also might have been followed by punishment (probably the owner sometimes corrected the sit or down that he got, because it was too slow or for some other reason.) As a pup, therefore, the dog had learned the behaviors but had not been able to tell, predictably, whether the outcome of doing them would be okay (praise) or something awful; so the commands themselves became conditioned punishers. Re-shaping the behavior without correction, and adding a different cue, again without correction, enabled the animal to give the same responses without fear-for the first time in ten years.

making food rewards less exciting

I think you can make food rewards less exciting by using them to reward calm behaviours that your dog voluntarily offers to you.  Don't use your voice at all, or the clicker.  When your dog is in a calm position - lying at your feet, for example, slip him a small tasty treat.  I think it's important to wait until the dog is acting calm on his own. 

Also, don't ever reward your dog for excited behaviour.  Don't pet, or give eye contact when they are jumping on you, or doing other excited behaviours.  Just ignore him until he calms down.

When I use my clicker, my dog is very happy.  We practice clicker training in the garage on rainy days, so now whenever i go to the garage, he's very eager to follow me, and his facial expression totally lights up.   He's happy and eager to play the clicker games, but it's not out of control excitement. 


Sanja Miklin's picture

other way around

When I read the title of this post, i thought it'll be about something similar to what i experienced with my dog. And it was the total oposite. Although i think that here just re-learning the behaviour was responsable for a clamer dog (when I was pre clicker, i had to do it with some of my cues cause they were 'poisoned? - i like the word :-) - and i just started from the beginning with the behaviour, using less P+, and not using clicker).
what happened to me, though, was that my dog got too excited when she heard a click so if we were in a situation where she needed to be calm and stay calm, i couldn't click so i just gave her food rewards. It worked quite well. I had a good timing because she was close to me, i tried combining low value food rewards (good treats would make her to excited, too) with gentle touch (although, I'm not sure now if that was good idea. I looked some of my very rare video clips of our training sessions and i saw some calming signals (toung lick for example)
in the moment I was touching her...

Does someone have any ides on how to make clicker or food rewards less exciting for a dog? Do I want to do that?

Sanja Miklin


LPC UWC, Hong Kong

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