Clicker training is a great way to train, and also fun for the person training and the trainee. Many trainers and behavior consultants use or recommend the use of clicker training and have great success. However, it’s always helpful to know some of the science behind the technique.
Theory behind clicker training
Clicker training is really interesting in that it’s used to describe both a technique and a philosophy of dog (and cat or other species) training.
Clickers are small devices with a button that makes a distinct mechanical click noise when pressed. There are now many varieties available, even apps that can make the noise. I personally like a good old fashioned clicker that’s attached to my wrist with a stretchy band. While I’ll be talking about clickers throughout this, and much of the research has been done with clickers specifically, other noises can be used such as verbal cues (certain words) or clicks, different tones, and others.
Clicker training uses a couple different aspects of learning theory. The first is positive reinforcement. In positive reinforcement we are giving the animal something in order to increase a behavior we want. Most of the time, this is through the use of treats.
In a study looking at perception of clicker training, people who used clicker training were asked about the benefits. They listed that dogs were more eager to learn, better at problem solving, and dogs that learned tasks more quickly. In dogs, clicker training was popularized with Karen Pryor’s book, ‘Don’t shoot the dog’ which is a great book covering the basics of learning and clicker training.
As a philosophy, clicker training is typically referred to in relation to positive reinforcement styles of training and by those who advocate against the use of aversive techniques. It’s also used as a philosophy description in relation to creating a good relationship with a dog and when using scientific approaches to training.
Teaching the animal what the click means
First, you need to teach the animal that the sound of the click means that a treat is coming soon. We want to ave many repetitions of click and treat to make sure the animal understands this really well. There is no consistent information in the literature about the number of pairings that should happen. Many studies use up to 20 repetitions or pairings. Researchers in these felt that the clicker had been appropriately ‘charged’, or that the dog understood the concept.
Treats should be given after every click. There was a study done that looked at two groups of dogs, one where the trainer used a click followed by a treat every time, and one where a treat was used after 60% of clicks. The researchers looked at the learning speed and the emotional state of the dog when training. The learning speed wasn’t any different between the two groups of dogs, but dogs that were only given a treat some of the time were more pessimistic.
A benefit of clicker training is that you can click more quickly than get a treat into an animal’s mouth. This is helpful as they can already be onto the next behavior by the time you get them a treat. Even a brief delay of one second between delivery of a reward has been shown to slow learning. Clicker training can therefore allow us to teach more quickly. In this manner, clickers have also been described as being a bridge or a marker for treat delivery.
Research in dogs
In research so far in dogs, we don’t see the big differences in learning speed when using a clicker compared to simply using food rewards. This could be due to a few different factors. The first is that laboratory studies are really well controlled, and things can be precise. With applied studies in pet dogs and with different trainers, there can be so many issues with timing, distraction, previous learning, and more. In order to get a really accurate understanding of what is happening, we need huge studies looking at many different trainers and many dogs, as well as very controlled and precise ones. At the moment, we don’t have this. Another factor could be that dogs actually don’t learn any faster with clickers than with simply food rewards.
In a number of studies, dogs have been placed in different groups and trained in different manners. For most of the studies, dogs were trained with a clicker and food and compared to either just food, and/or a marker word and food. Across all the studies to date that have been published, the pet dogs did not learn any faster when using a clicker compared to the other methods.
There is definitely a need for further research in this area. This could be looking at dogs with different levels of experience with clickers, training different behaviors, looking at the methods and timing of trainers, and more.
Despite the inconclusive research results, I still highly encourage clicker training in clients. In my experience, it’s a noise that can stand out from background noise well. It helps to get people into training and both people and their dogs really seem to enjoy it.
If you’re interested in more of the science behind this blog post, visit The Behaviory Blog. The Behaviory is written for pet professionals, and covers the topic in greater depth.
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