During my group dog training classes, there are several people and dogs in the room. Each person has a clicker and is clicking when his or her dog does the correct behavior. New students always ask, “Won’t my dog get confused? How will my dog know to distinguish between my click and somebody else’s click?”
The same question comes up at horse clicker training clinics, at weekend dog training seminars, and in other settings where multiple animal trainers are training at the same time.
The short answer to this question is, yes, multiple people can clicker train their animals at the same time without the animals getting confused. However, let me tell you a story to help illustrate this.
At the beginning of this month, I attended a horse clicker training clinic with Alexandra Kurland in Arkansas. I promise I’ll share more about the clinic on my blog later on. For now, however, I want to tell you about my cellphone.
My Apple phone has a short, happy little ringtone that is called “tweet.” It’s what I use for the notifications for my text messages. At the clinic, another one of the attendees was also using this same sound for notifications.
Clinics with Alexandra Kurland are non-stop fun, literally. We begin with conversations over breakfast and often keep talking about the day’s training sessions for quite some time after dinner. Anyhow, for much of the time we were inside, my phone was not right beside me. Sometimes it was in my bag. Other times it was on the kitchen table or over in the living room.
On the first day of the clinic, I hadn’t realized yet that Gail and I both had the same sound for notifications. So, every time Gail’s phone would ding, I would go and check my phone. But, there wouldn’t be a new message…. Finally, part way through the day, we figured out the mystery.
After this, I started doing a different kind of listening. Whenever I heard the phone ding, I would stop, orient, think about where my phone was, and assess whether the sound likely had come from my phone or not. If it wasn’t my phone, I would go back to my business. If it was my phone, I would check it (or make a note to check it later).
The really interesting part of all of this is that by the second half of the clinic, I entered a new phase. I realized at one point that Gail’s phone had dinged, and I had completely ignored it and gone on with what I was doing. Of course, I could still physically hear the sounds from both phones. But, I had learned to take mental notes of where I had left my phone so that I could pay attention only to my phone and disregard the sounds from the other phone.
I had a similar experience some years ago with a college roommate. At the beginning of the semester, I would wake up to both her alarm and my alarm. However, it didn’t take long until I was sleeping soundly through the ringing of her alarm and getting up only when my alarm rang.
The connection to animal training
Animals are very good at learning signals that predict that treats (or other reinforcers) are coming soon. In a group setting, your animal will still listen for your click. However, he’ll also learn to pay attention to other signals, such as volume, the direction of the sound, and your body language cues. These additional signals will help him distinguish between your clicks and someone else’s clicks. With some practice, he’ll be able to completely tune out those other clicks, just like I was able to ignore the other phone and alarm clock.
However, it’s worth noting that in both of these stories, I went through a transition period where I was orienting to both sounds and trying to figure out if the sound was for me. The same thing may happen to your animal.
If you usually do not train in a group setting, your animal may be confused at first if there are other people nearby who are clicking clickers. In this case, it may be helpful to simplify things at first. For example, you can start by working on easy behaviors that your animal knows well. You can also begin with a larger distance between you and the other people and animals. Things such as this will give your animal a chance to learn that the rules have changed slightly and that he should just listen for your click.