There is no longer any doubt. Clicker training is here to stay.
More and more animal trainers are using it.
Although I work with dogs, not dinosaurs, I too am a dedicated clicker trainer, as are most of the instructors who teach for me at AutumnGold. However, while the theoretical underpinnings of clicker training are solid – and date back to Skinner’s original operant conditioning studies of the 1930’s – there is surprising little published research regarding its application to dog training. (There are even fewer studies of its effectiveness for training velociraptors. Huh. Who knew?). Even more surprising is the fact that the results of the dog studies that are available are not unequivocally in the “Yay, Clicker Training!” camp. Rather, their results have been lukewarm at best, with some showing only limited (or no) benefit.
Lucky for us, Lynna Feng, a graduate student at La Trobe University in Victoria, has taken on clicker training as her PhD research topic. I wrote about Lynna’s first paper in the Science Dog essay, “The Meaning of Click“. In her most recent publication, Lynna surveys the popularity of clicker training among dog trainers and asks the question “Why do we click“?
The Study: Lynna and her team used several approaches to this study. They directly interviewed a group of 13 dog trainers (8 clicker trainers, 3 non-clicker trainers, 2 uncommitted); reviewed a series of 7 best-selling dog books whose primary subject is clicker training; and examined five different click-dedicated websites. Data were coded and analyzed using a validated procedure called qualitative content analysis. This process describes the targeted phenomenon within a framework of predefined questions. In this case, the questions that the researchers were attempting to answer were:
- What is clicker training?
- Why do people use clicker training [with dogs]?
- What methods are generally considered to be “best practice” in relation to clicker training?
Here is what they found. Keep your clicker close by cuz this is really good stuff.
Results – What is Clicker Training? The study generated a lot of information, so I will attempt to distill this into results that are most relevant to dog trainers:
- Philosophy or Technique? The majority of dog trainers view clicker training as both a training philosophy and a technique. As a philosophy, the non-aversive and dog-centric nature of clicker training plus dogs’ positive experience of clicker training were emphasized. As a training technique, trainers espoused more practical views, such as “clicker training as a way to identify desirable behaviors in a dog with a clear signal (marker)” and “Using a clicker communicates to my dog that a primary reinforcer will be coming soon“.
- The Dog’s Experience: Generally, trainers focused more on the communication properties of the clicker (i.e. marking a behavior and communicating to the dog that they are doing the ‘right thing”) rather than on its function as a secondary reinforcer. This is a rather important difference from the results of empirical research which suggests that the primary function of the click sound to an animal is as a secondary (conditioned) reinforcer. However, when applied to dog training, the clicker appears to be viewed first and foremost as an important communication tool that enhances the training experience and promotes learning. (More about this later).
Results: Why Click? The most consistently reported reason to clicker train was the perception that it helps dogs to learn more rapidly and effectively. Trainers also reported a number of additional reasons that they choose this training method:
- Clicker training promotes active learning and encourages dogs to think for themselves. The end result is a dog who is eager to learn, more attentive, happy and confident. (This benefit was strongly contrasted with traditional training methods that focus more on instilling command compliance).
- For the trainer, clicker training was reported to be easy to learn, encourages accurate timing and proper technique, and allows the trainer to better understand their dog’s learning process.
- Many trainers mentioned their relationship with their dog, saying that clicker training strengthens their bond and improves communication (there is that communication thing again….).
Results: What are the “Best Practices”? Several broad categories of advice were reported:
- Introducing the clicker: Both “charging” the clicker (repetitions of click-treat [CT] not contingent upon a targeted behavior) and introducing the clicker by using CT to reinforce a simple, known behavior were recommended. There was no consensus regarding which approach was preferred or superior. When asked about the number of repetitions of CT needed to establish the click as a secondary reinforcer, a wide range of estimates was provided – between “a few” to several hundred!
- How to click: A wide range of opinions surfaced regarding how exactly to use the clicker. Almost all agreed that clear training criteria were essential and that the signal (click) should be applied at the exact moment that the dog is engaging in the targeted behavior. Conversely, there was not consensus about what the dog should be doing immediately after the click. This is the never-ending “click ends behavior” vs. “click during the behavior and dog maintains the behavior” argument. To date, there is no empirical evidence that supports or refutes either approach. (In fact there is no published research that even compares the two). Many (but not all) of the sources agreed that the trainer should maintain “one click/one treat” and “the treat should follow the click as closely as possible”. (Note, this second rule has some supportive evidence with dogs in the literature).
- When to click: When asked if there were particular contexts in which clicker training was more appropriate than others, a number of sources stated that clicker training is useful for teaching almost any new behavior to dogs, and is especially effective for those that involve multiple steps or that occur at a distance from the trainer. Other sources stated that clicker training should only be used in a “controlled environment” (whatever that means) or only for certain types of training. (My particular favorite response in this section was the warning by some trainers that clicker training should be not be used “unless you are a professional“. Hmmm…Really?).
Conclusions: The researchers’ goals with this survey study were to identify specific questions regarding clicker training with dogs that can be addressed through future empirical research. Here are several questions that they identify:
- Are the benefits associated with clicker training related to the level of experience that dogs have with this training approach? (It is hypothesized that some of the more pronounced benefits that many trainers noted, such as enhancing the bond that they have with their dog and improving communication, come about as a result of prolonged and consistent clicker training over a period of weeks and months).
- How long does it actually take to “charge” a clicker (i.e. to build the association that click always predicts treat)? Is it a few pairings, a few dozen, several hundred? Are multiple training sessions required or can this be accomplished in one session? Related to the previous question – What role does repeated and prolonged exposure to “charging” the clicker play in dogs’ ability to respond to clicker training?
- And my favorite: Does clicker training improve communication and enhance the relationship between the handler and her dog? If so, how does this develop and how is it expressed (or measured)?
Take Away for Dog Folks: The point made several times in this paper was that the benefits of clicker training to dogs and to their trainers appear to develop over time as the dog becomes more and more experienced with clicker training. This contrasts sharply with the methodology used in studies of clicker training with dogs, all of which tested the efficacy of clicker training with dogs who had little or no previous experience with a clicker and used a relatively small number of CT repetitions, short training sessions and simple target behaviors. This led me to wonder “Maybe the studies that have been published to date have studied something that is fundamentally different from what we, as trainers (and our dogs) are experiencing as clicker training in the real world“.
Here is what I mean: One possible reason that dog trainers, many who believe emphatically that clicker training is a highly effective tool, are at odds with the less than stellar results of the published studies is that perhaps we are not talking about the same things. In other words, the way in which clicker training has been studied with dogs (and, one could argue, with other species as well), is not the way in which clicker training is actually used in practice. Several important differences were identified in Lynna’s study. The two most important are: (1) In practice, clicker training takes place over extended periods of time; (2) It almost always includes an established and positive relationship between the trainee (the dog) and the trainer (usually the owner).
The primary point that I came away with from this paper was that despite some continued attempts to make it so, clicker training as applied with dogs is not a purely behavioristic methodology. Rather, if one considers all of the new information that we have regarding the dog’s cognitive abilities, including their well-documented ability to read and understand human communication signals, then it is likely that the actual practice of clicker training involves much more than a rigid application of CT without any personal (relationship), cognitive, or emotional component. Since the studies that are in existence have studied clicker training using highly controlled behavioristic methodologies, perhaps they did not effectively measure or capture the depth and complexity of the phenomenon that is taking place when we use clicker training with dogs.
The results of this paper will hopefully be the impetus for new studies of clicker training that include dogs who have an extensive clicker history and who have established relationships with their trainer. Other elements that require study include the variety of ways in which the clicker is applied during a training session (end of behavior vs. maintain/keep going), and the many areas of training in which it is currently used (complex chains, distance training, different sports and working contexts). Personally, I look forward to reading more about Lynna’s studies and thank her and her team for undertaking work that is of immense interest to dog folks, especially those of us who are dedicated clicker trainers.
So, why do I click? I click because it works, because my dogs love it, and because, like so many others report in this study, it contributes to my ability to communicate clearly to my dogs and enhances the loving bond that I have with them. Happy training, everyone!
Cited Reference: Feng LC, Howell TJ, Bennett PC. Comparing trainers’ reports of clicker use to the use of clickers in applied research studies: methodological differences may explain conflicting results. Pet Behavior Science 2017; 3:1-18.
Read more about dog cognition, behavior and training in Linda Case’s new book, “Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog” (2018)