Dogs may be man’s best friend, but many frisky Fidos still have what dog owners quietly refer to as “issues.” Whether it’s pooping in the house, attacking the cat or pulling on the leash until their owner's arm is numb, the perfect dog is hard to find. Owners are all too familiar with the training section at the pet store, that infamous aisle lined with training manuals, complicated-looking leashes and other “fool-proof” items guaranteed to cure any pet’s annoying little habits.

After dropping hundreds of dollars and almost losing your sanity trying the latest training fad, it seems cruel that something as simple and cheap as a plastic device that makes a “click!” sound could fix your dog’s behavior, but that’s exactly what renowned behavioral biologist Karen Pryor is advocating. A “clicker” is a mechanical device that makes a distinctive clicking sound to tell the animal exactly when they’re doing the right thing. And it doesn’t just work on dogs, but all animals — even people.

In her book, Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us About All Animals (Simon & Schuster, $25), Pryor challenges the old world view of animal training, where dominance and punishment rule, and argues for a more sophisticated training approach using real examples and hard scientific data. Recently I spoke with Pryor about using clicker training to give lions their medicine, making your pets think and why using your voice is the worst way to teach animals.

MNN: What made you decide to go into animal training?

Karen Pryor: I never really did decide to do that. I was a writer and a marine biologist by training and was living in Hawaii with my husband who developed Sea Life Park, an oceanarium and research institute. About three months before the place opened, they had a bunch of dolphins they were trying to train using a manual written by a graduate student in behavior analysis, which is something nobody had ever heard of at that point. But they were unsuccessful, and basically the dolphins had trained the trainers to give them fish for nothing.

I was the only person around who had trained anything — a dog and a pony — so they asked me to try. When I picked up this manual and started reading, I was hooked. The dolphins were great practice animals because they were huge and they ate a lot, so you could make a lot of mistakes before they were full.

Why does clicker training work when other methods don’t?

Clicker training revolves around the basic premise that animals quickly learn that one behavior gets them a reinforcing click and a bit of food and undesirable behaviors get them nothing at all. People often ask, “Why can’t I just use food to train the animal?” The click reaches the brain in a different way from the food. People and animals don’t distinguish one treat from another, but we do remember the message that told us what we were doing when we got that reward.

People often think the clicker is very trivial, but it’s actually very profound. Using the clicker is a different way of communicating that seems foreign to us, but the animals understand it right away.

Isn’t using a clicker the same as saying something like “good dog?”

Using the clicker is different from your voice because you can’t really tell if you make a timing mistake with your voice, but you can tell if you make a timing mistake with the clicker. It also helps you focus on what you want rather than what you don’t want so that you can think in terms of catching good behavior and building on that.

The clicker does just as much to keep the trainer on the straight and narrow as is does to educate the animals. Your voice, besides often being late, carries a million other messages that tell animals a lot about your emotion at the time, and that’s not important. What is important is that the animal knows what it was doing when it received the click. You want the animal to get information about its own behavior, not about what you’re thinking.

Dominance training shows have become popular lately. Why do you believe that clicker training is better?

Dominance training is all forced-based. What is really being taught is fear-governed avoidance behavior, basically do nothing or do as little as you can so you don’t bring trouble down on yourself. It’s certainly effective, I won’t argue with that. You can make dogs subordinate and submissive, but sometimes the fear goes overboard and they can bite out of fear, particularly if you’re not skilled. It’s basically just suppressing behavior instead of building good behavior. Clicker training is much more fun and easier and you can get started without any skills. It’s for the rest of us.

And clicker training doesn’t just work on dogs, right?

I’ve never come across an animal that won’t respond to clicker training. Some even use it with people to teach skills like gymnastics and foreign languages or to work with autistic children. It works on everyone because our nervous systems are wired to learn what works for us through secondary reinforcers like the clicker, which are messages about good things. Even zookeepers use it to give medical treatment to animals like lions and tigers by teaching them to cooperate in their own medical care and work with the keeper.

Can you use clicker training for behavioral issues like barking?

People always worry about how they can stop their dogs from doing something. That’s what people always think training is about, stopping bad behavior, but it isn’t. Mostly we don’t teach dogs self-control, we keep them on the leash and we make them behave and they never have a chance to learn how to be a grown-up dog like how to decide to be quiet and then be quiet on purpose. But you can use clicker training to teach the dog to control its own behavior. For example, teach him an alternate behavior, like looking at you instead of at the other dog and barking. They’re thinking about what works and what doesn’t and they’re not used to doing that because we don’t usually ask them to. It gives them a mental challenge. Plus, it uses a lot of energy so they sleep well at night!

What’s your next project?

Well, I have my company to run, Karen Pryor Academy. I’m very much involved in the school we’ve developed, which teaches clicker training for animals and tag teaching for people. Right now we have more than 100 certified clicker graduates and about another 100 in training. I’m also interested in developing a program that zookeepers can benefit from and am teaching some advanced clicker work in a number of zoos this winter. I’m also involved in ClickerExpo, a twice a year event where you get three days of exploring clicker training, which is quite a lot of fun. It’s something anybody can go to.

Want more? Check out MNN's new 'Pets & Animals' channel.

MNN homepage photo: GlobalP/iStockPhoto 

'Reaching the Animal Mind'
Behavioral biologist Karen Pryor talks to MNN about her new book and why clicker training can work on any animal — including humans.