Clicker Training For Dogs: Barriers And Potential
Clicker training is a modern method of companion animal training that uses positive reinforcement sequences and audio cues (with a “clicker”) to guide behavior. Though relatively new (by most accounts it was popularized around 1999, but certainly existed in other iterations before), proponents have generally reported very positive results, saying that it helps companions (especially dogs, though cats can be clicker trained as well) learn faster and enjoy the learning process. As such, an increasing number of companion animal advocates and caretakers have taken up clicker training as a result.
Clicker training works on three mechanisms: “providing an immediate source of reinforcement before reward delivery, bridging the time between the dog performing the desired behavior and the subsequent reward, or marking the precise instant the dog performs the desired behavior.” However, are people using the clicker in a way that employs these mechanisms? Moreover, are their perceptions of its effectiveness impacting the outcomes? The authors of this study distributed an online questionnaire to individuals who lived with and/or worked with dogs to “investigate the perceptions and practices of clicker training in a wider population.” Nearly 600 people completed the survey.
When asked why they began to use clicker training, survey recipients most commonly responded because the method was used in training classes (52%), they read about it in a book (52%), or it was recommended by a trainer (52%). By contrast, those using other reward-based training techniques most often answered that they used those techniques “by intuition.” As for why they continue to use clicker training, survey respondents unsurprisingly indicated because it was successful. More specifically, respondents reported that they and their dogs were more motivated to engage in training. They also reported improvements in their own training ability and noted that the dog not only learned more quickly but retained more of the learned behaviors. The researchers note that this observation runs contrary to current findings that clicker training does not increase the rate of learning over food rewards alone.
The researchers note that clicker training is popular among the sample here and is considered effective; however, they also note that the sample was skewed towards those already using the method. Interestingly, they note that scientific literature about clicker effectiveness relies on studies in which the trainer is an unfamiliar individual rather than a bonded companion person, suggesting that clickers may be a tool that boosts communication between bonded pairs. Though additional research is still needed to better understand the mechanics of clicker training and how human perception impacts its effectiveness, the study shows that clickers are, at the very least, a training method that appears to benefit both trainer and companion animal.