Tickling Rats for Superior Science

By Megan LaFollette

When I meet new people, they usually ask me what I do for a living. I love the opportunity to answer, “I study the intersection of animal welfare and human-animal interaction, specifically rat tickling” People are always curious to hear more, although sometimes they think I must be joking. Surely I don’t really tickle rats for my job!

Rat tickling? What is that? Why would you do that?

Rat tickling is a technique that humans can use to mimic rat rough-and-tumble play and interact with rats [1]. It’s similar to if you’ve ever played and run around with your dog, feinting, dodging, and getting down low, maybe wrestling a tad. Similar to dogs, juvenile rats play by running around and taking turns wrestling with one rat on top of the other. Obviously, we can’t wrestle a rat with our whole body, we would crush them! But we can use our hand to mimic rat play, which is the technique of rat tickling.

Researchers and pet rat owners tickle rats for a couple of reasons. The reason I am most interested in is to improve rat welfare. Initially, when we interact with rats they are afraid of us. For lab rats especially, this fear continues when scientists do things like give them injections, which can be common in scientific studies. This fear can cause stress, anxiety, and possibly interfere with scientific results. Fortunately, rat tickling can help. By tickling rats, we can reduce their fear of humans, decrease stress during injection, and increase positive emotions [2].

Is rat tickling really scientific? It seems a little silly to me.

Rat tickling is a scientifically based technique. As my colleagues and I showed in our recent systematic review about rat tickling, there have been over 32 articles and 56 experiments that use rat tickling [3]. Several of these articles looked at the welfare benefits of rat tickling. Others focused on using rat tickling to study and model positive emotions. For example, does being predisposed to being happier help in coping with stress? Scientists have used rat tickling to help answer this question [4]. They found that indeed, some rats consistently respond better to tickling than others (thought to be inherently happier) and these rats were more stress-resilient than those who respond more negatively to tickling (thought to be inherently less happy).

Do rats really like tickling? It looks pretty rough to me.

Rat tickling is supposed to be a rough and rambunctious; after all it mimics rat rough-and-tumble play. Almost all of the 22 experiments comparing rat tickling to other types of rat handling show that tickling rats is positive. To be specific, rat tickling results in increased positive vocalizations, faster approach to humans, and more positive responses to handling, as well as decreased anxiety.

Seeing positive vocalizations in response to tickling is a particularly exciting result. Rats make ultrasonic vocalizations in the 50-kHz range when they have positive experiences, and these vocalizations are therefore thought to reflect positive emotions [5]. Some scientists even think these 50-kHz ultrasonic vocalizations are actually analogous to human laughter; so it is not inaccurate to say that rats laugh when you tickle them [6].


  1. Burgdorf J, Panksepp J. Tickling induces reward in adolescent rats. Physiol Behav. 2001;72: 167–173. doi:10.1016/S0031-9384(00)00411-X
  2. Cloutier S, Panksepp J, Newberry RC. Playful handling by caretakers reduces fear of humans in the laboratory rat. Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2012;140: 161–171. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2012.06.001
  3. LaFollette MR, O’Haire ME, Cloutier S, Blankenberger WB, Gaskill BN. Rat tickling: A systematic review of applications, outcomes, and moderators. PLOS ONE. 2017;12: e0175320. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0175320
  4. Mällo T, Matrov D, Kõiv K, Harro J. Effect of chronic stress on behavior and cerebral oxidative metabolism in rats with high or low positive affect. Neuroscience. 2009;164: 963–974. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2009.08.041
  5. Burgdorf J, Panksepp J, Moskal JR. Frequency-modulated 50 kHz ultrasonic vocalizations: a tool for uncovering the molecular substrates of positive affect. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2011;35: 1831–1836. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.11.011
  6. Panksepp J, Burgdorf J. “Laughing” rats and the evolutionary antecedents of human joy? Physiol Behav. 2003;79: 533–547. doi:10.1016/S0031-9384(03)00159-8

About the Author:

Megan LaFollette is a 2nd year PhD student at Purdue University. She works with Dr. Maggie O’Haire on Human-Animal Interaction and Dr. Brianna Gaskill on Laboratory Animal Welfare Science. Her research focuses on using rat tickling to enhance laboratory animal welfare and its effects on both rats and the humans that interact with them. Outside of her PhD, Megan is an avid traveler and loves the pursuit of acrobatic yoga.


The ISAZ Student Blog is posted every-other month and each post is authored by a different student member of the International Society for Anthrozoology. Interested in authoring a post? Please see our submissions page for details on how to apply.


Do You Believe in Dog?

We here at Becoming an Anthrozoologist would like to extend a special thank you to our friends at Do You Believe In Dog?, who recently featured Becoming an Anthrozoologist on their fantastic (and very popular) canine science blog. Thanks in part to their help, just two months after we launched Becoming an Anthrozoologist, we are delighted to announce that the blog has been visited over 800 times! Thanks again to Mia and Julie at Do You Believe in Dog?, and to everyone for reading. Stay tuned for the next edition of Becoming an Anthrozoologist in January.

The Clicker Training Controversy

By Lynna Feng

“Are you a clicker trainer?” This question fills me with dread every time I hear it. Even within the realm of reward-based dog training philosophies, there can be discord between those who use clickers and those who do not. And as a researcher trying to better understand both sides of the story, I really don’t want to alienate myself from any of these individuals.

So, what is clicker training – and why the controversy?

Clicker training is a reward-based training technique that uses a signal which is paired with a food reward. If that definition sounds vague, that’s because it is. Relatively speaking, clicker training is young. In fact, it was only termed ‘clicker training’ and introduced to the dog training community at an Applied Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) convention about 25 years ago. Clicker training wasn’t created by one person with specific definitions of what constitutes clicker training; instead, an entire community of people have taken that basic principal and run with it, resulting in varied practices, beliefs, and perceptions.

A handful of empirical research studies have been conducted to see if clicker training is any better than just rewarding dogs with food – with surprisingly little success. For my review of these studies and other relevant laboratory animal literature, see here. But, if we can’t even come up with a comprehensive definition of clicker training, how can we be sure that these studies have truly assessed clicker training as it is practiced today? This is where the current study comes in.

The study

Recently published in Pet Behaviour Science (OPEN ACCESS), my supervisors and I conducted a qualitative analysis of advice and perceptions surrounding clicker training. We wanted to better understand: 1) what clicker training is, 2) why people use it, and 3) trainers’ ‘best practice’ suggestions.

To do this, I interviewed 13 dog trainers. I also interrogated 5 websites and 7 books on clicker training in dogs that were ranked most highly by Google’s proprietary algorithm (excluding advertisements). These sources were analyzed within the framework of our initial questions.


What clicker training is

Clicker training is more than just training with a clicker.  Some sources felt that clicker training is synonymous with reward-based training, while others felt that true clicker training meant using an auditory signal when training new behaviors by shaping (i.e. rewarding closer and closer approximations to a goal behavior). Most, however, felt that a whistle, verbal “yes,” or other auditory signal used in a manner consistent with how they used a clicker fell under the umbrella term “clicker training.” Importantly, most sources said that clicker training was a form of communication: the click tells the dog he or she did something right and a reward is coming.

Why people clicker train

An abundance of benefits of clicker training were reported: from speeding up the training, to making training more enjoyable for both the dog and human, to improving communication between human and dog. However, many dog trainers also acknowledged that clicker training can be challenging, particularly for beginners. Anyone who has attempted to train their dog while holding food and a leash knows that hands are a valuable resource. I often find myself wishing for a third (or even fourth) arm. It’s not surprising that learning the coordination to hold and use a clicker in conjunction with food can be frustrating at first!

Clicker training ‘best practice’

As expected, opinions on how clicker training should be practiced varied considerably. Sources disagreed on what signals were appropriate, particularly between those who preferred the handheld clicker versus a verbal marker word. They also disagreed on how many times the signal needs to be paired with a reward before it can be used in training, what rewards can be used (food versus toys, praise, petting, etc.), how often the reward must follow the click (every click followed by a food reward or not), and the contexts in which clickers would help or hinder training.


Overall, this study gives a framework of practitioners’ beliefs, perceptions, and practice of clicker training. We now have a better understanding of potential obstacles and benefits of clicker training, and several points of contention that could benefit from empirical assessment. This allows us to more holistically evaluate the effect of using clicker training and the potential factors that might change how well it works. Such research would be the first steps to developing evidenced-based clicker training practice recommendations!

References and further reading

Chiandetti, C., Avella, S., Fongaro, E., & Cerri, F., 2016. Can clicker training facilitate conditioning in dogs? Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci., 184, 109-116. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2016.08.006

Feng, L. C., Howell, T. J., & Bennett, P. C., 2016. How clicker training works: Comparing Reinforcing, Marking, and Bridging Hypotheses. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci., 181, 34-40. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2016.05.012

Feng, L. C., Howell, T. J., & Bennett, P. C., 2017. Comparing trainers’ reports of clicker use to the use of clickers in applied research studies: methodological differences may explain conflicting results. Pet Behav. Sci., 3, 1-18. doi:10.21071/pbs.v0i3.5786

Pryor, K. W., & Chase, S., 2014. Training for variability and innovative behavior. Int. J. Comp. Psychol., 27(2). Retrieved from http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/9cs2q3nr

Smith, S. M., & Davis, E. S., 2008. Clicker increases resistance to extinction but does not decrease training time of a simple operant task in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci., 110(3-4), 318-329. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2007.04.012

About  The Author:

Lynna Feng is a 3rd year PhD student in the Anthrozoology Research Group at La Trobe University under the mentorship of Dr. Pauleen Bennett. Her research focuses on the role of training, and more specifically clicker training, in the interactions between pet dogs and their owners. Outside of her PhD, Lynna is a puppy raiser with Seeing Eye Dogs Australia and occasionally dreams of running away to join the circus.

The ISAZ Student Blog is posted every-other month and each post is authored by a different student member of the International Society for Anthrozoology. Interested in authoring a post? Please see our submissions page for details on how to apply.


Welcome to the ISAZ Student Blog

Hello and welcome to Becoming an Anthrozoologist, the new International Society for Anthrozoology (ISAZ) student blog! The ISAZ student chapter is excited to present this blog as a forum for students to share their research, learn about the work of other students in anthrozoology, and connect with others in the field. The blog is edited by the student chapter, in collaboration with two faculty editors, Dr. Pauleen Bennett and Dr. James Serpell.

We will have a new post by a different student member of ISAZ four times a year (January, April, July, October). We aim to showcase the diversity and interdisciplinary nature of research that falls under the category of anthrozoology. We will do so by featuring research on a wide range of topics, species, and populations.

If you are a student member of ISAZ, we hope that you will consider submitting. If you are a full member of ISAZ, we hope you will follow the ISAZ student blog as a way to stay up to date with the work of new researchers in the field. If you are not a member of ISAZ, but you are a professional in anthrozoology, thank you for visiting the blog and we hope you will also visit the ISAZ website to learn more about the benefits of joining ISAZ. If you are someone who is interested in anthrozoology, but doesn’t work in the field professionally, we are delighted to have you visit the blog and learn about the latest research on the study of interactions between people and animals.

Thank you for reading and a very warm welcome to the ISAZ Student Blog.

Best wishes,

Molly Crossman, ISAZ Student Board Member