Sep 5 / Teresa Tyler

To Click or not to Click?

Clicker training is a method of training dogs and other animals that has become increasingly popular over the last twenty or so years. However, recent research suggests that it is no more effective than using food or a combination of praise and food when training. Is the clicker an essential tool, or an added complication in dog training?

What is Clicker training?
This method of dog training requires that a trainer gives a noise signal (though a non-auditory stimulus can be used) immediately following the desired behaviour (Feng et al. 2018). This noise is then immediately followed by the delivery of what is called a primary reinforcer, usually food. Clicker training was introduced by Skinner (1951) who originally suggested using a clicker as this signal because it is high pitched and easily draws the attention of the animal. Skinner explained that any delay in giving the food reinforcer, for even more than just one second, could destroy the reinforcement effect (Skinner, 1938). Using a ‘click’ signal immediately following the wanted  behaviour, essentially bought more time for offering the reward/reinforcer, making it a more efficient way of learning.

Food, Praise or Click?
In 2016, Chiandetti et al, conducted a study that compared three ways of teaching a new behaviour. One group used a clicker and food reward. The second used verbal praise and food and the third, food alone. They found no difference between the three groups, corroborating earlier studies. In 2018, Feng et al, decided to carry out comparisons in a similar way but with pet owners, rather than professional trainers. This seems to be one of the more useful studies, after all most pet owners are not professional trainers. The study used 45 dog-owner pairs, over a six-week period. The clicker-plus-food owners found teaching their dog to nose-target an object easier, but no differences were found for any other behaviours. The study concluded that no significant difference between clicker-plus-food and food-only groups was observed.Burton (2020) decided to examine this theme again, but used the methods with different sets of behaviours, to see whether the clicker worked more effectively when teaching certain behaviours. What he found was that the clicker was no more effective than food alone, but that owners found teaching certain behaviours easier with a clicker than with just food and that owner preference of method was significant, rather than the reinforcers themselves.

The dogs are individuals as are the humans and it is that relationship which is key to any success. 

‘ The clicker-plus-food owners found teaching their dog to nose-target an object easier, but no differences found for any other behaviours. The study concluded that no significant difference between clicker-plus-food and food-only groups was observed. Notably, owners using clickers perceived teaching their dog to nose-target an object easier than the group that used food-only, but there was no evidence to suggest this was due to clicker efficiency rather than preferred training method.’ (Burton, 2020:25).
He concludes that ‘it is important to give pet owners control over what reinforcement method they feel works best for both them and their pet dog. Training of a highly social species such as a dog makes the relationship between the trainer and the animal important. Thus, selecting a reinforcement method that works best for the individual relationship may be more important than the general effectiveness of reinforcement methods.’ (Burton, 2020:26).
This is the most important point for me. The dogs are individuals as are the humans and it is that relationship which is key to any success. It makes absolute sense  to use a reinforcer that a dog enjoys and is effective, combined with a method that a trainer or owner feels comfortable using. As ever, as has been demonstrated over thousands of years, it is the quality of the relationship between humans and dogs that is the priority.

Refs:
Burton, Brian J., “Does Clicker Training Lead to Faster Acquisition of Behavior for Dog Owners?” (2020). CUNY Academic Works. 36.
Chiandetti, C., Avella, S., Fongaro, E., & Cerri, F. (2016). Can clicker training facilitate conditioning in dogs? Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 184, 109–116
Feng, Lynna & Hodgens, Naomi & Woodhead, Jessica & Howell, Tiffani & Bennett, Pauleen. (2018). Is clicker training (Clicker + food) better than food-only training for novice companion dogs and their owners?. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 204.
Feng, L. C., Howell, T. J., & Bennett, P. C. (2018). Practices and perceptions of clicker use in dog training: A survey-based investigation of dog owners and industry professionals. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 23, 1–9.
Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: an experimental analysis. Oxford: AppletonCentury.Skinner BF. (1951). How to teach animals. Scientific American.