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.

Results

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

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