What is “clicker training” and why do people use it?

by Lynna C. Feng, Tiffani J. Howell, and Pauleen C. Bennett. School of Psychology and Public Health, La Trobe University. P.O. Box 199, Bendigo, Victoria 3552. Australia.

Clicker training is a popular animal training technique. It comes from research on animal learning and behaviour. Dog trainers report many benefits of clicker training. Yet, laboratory-based studies find no evidence that using a clicker is better than just using food rewards.

Differences between “real world” and research study methods may partly account for the lack of supporting evidence. Standard methods of clicker training have not been previously documented. Our study, recently published in Pet Behaviour Science (3rd issue, 2017), aimed to summarise and evaluate clicker training as it is currently practiced in dog training.

Photo by Brandon Woodward at Flic.kr; Licensed under CC BY 2.0

To do so, we collected and analysed interviews with dog trainers, clicker training books and websites about clicker training. We looked at 1) what clicker training is, 2) why people use it, and 3) ‘best practice’ suggestions.

What clicker training is

Clicker training was seen as more than a technique. Many sources also saw it as a training philosophy focused on rewards and science-based training.

Why people clicker train

People reported that clicker training was effective. It was thought to help dogs learn quickly and perform with precision. People also said that clicker training was fun. However, many acknowledged that some novice clicker trainers find it hard to master the necessary timing and coordination.

Clicker training ‘best practice’

There were varied opinions on how clicker training should be used. Advice on how to start clicker training a new dog fell into one of two categories. Some believed that the clicker needed to be “charged” (repeated click-food pairings prior to training). Others immediately used the clicker in a training context. Advice on using signals other than a clicker was also varied. Some were adamant that a clicker device must be used. Others preferred a verbal marker. A range of possible signals were identified, but there was no consistent favourite. Finally, some sources recommended clicker training in all contexts. Others thought that clickers were only beneficial when training new behaviours. Differences between and within industry practitioners’ advice and scientific research study methods are important to consider. They could explain why the studies do not see the same benefits reported by many practitioners.

Overall, this study gives a framework of practitioners’ beliefs and perceptions of clicker training. For more on these and other findings, please check out our website. The full research paper will be freely available as soon as possible.

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