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What is Clicker Training?

To click or not to click? Let us help you answer this question!

So you want to train your dog and you have decided that you want to try out this clicker thing... it must be voodoo because even a fish can be taught to jump through hoops using clicker training! (Nope, not joking... it happened!) Inca has been taught to shut the door too!

So how do clickers work?

1. What is a clicker?

A clicker is typically a small device that emits a 'click' noise by depressing a button. Other noises can be used instead of a clicker (the word "good", a whistle, a light or hand signal... anything you like really). But clicker trainers will argue that the short, sharp, distinct 'click' sound works better as it is something that dogs won't usually hear (or see) in every day life and so it is thought to create a clear cue that rewards are on offer. So how does this work?

2. Clickers become predictors of good stuff

Clickers become predictors of good things by being paired with a 'reward' (most commonly food, but also praise, play and access to things they want). To be honest.... they could quite as easily become predictors of bad stuff too - but we wouldn't want that! To teach a dog that a clicker predicts good things, the trainer will click the clicker and then immediately deliver a food reward. They will repeat this several times until the dog seems to have learnt the association between the 'click' and reward. Once this has happened, you have created an association with the 'click' noise and the delivery of food. If you were training a deaf dog, the visual cue 'thumbs up' works in much the same way.

So how does this help with training?

3. Marking, bridging and reinforcing - the sciencey bit!

There are several hypotheses that have looked at this and the science still seems to be inconclusive.

Firstly, the Secondary Reinforcement hypothesis supposes that by repeated association with a primary reinforcer (food) the dog becomes conditioned to view the clicker as rewarding in itself. Some studies suggest this may be partially true (animals will continue to perform a task when clicked, but given no reward) but this effect does wear off and isn't replicated in all studies.

Secondly, the Marking hypothesis supposes that the 'click' marks the point at which the dog correctly performs the behaviour and gives them a point of reference from which to learn from. This is similar to being told 'you are getting warmer' in the hot and cold game we played as children. There is some disparity between what behavioural scientists and trainers believe here - but I won't go in to that! Instead, I have included some links at the bottom of the page to read if you are interested.

Lastly, the Bridging hypothesis supposes that the noise made by the clicker fills the gap between the correctly performed behaviour and the delivery of food - thus improving learning. Studies seem to show that this effect generally works better if the noise occurs for the duration (or majority of the time) between the performance of the correct behaviour and food delivery. Therefore, longer cues such as "good boy" may actually function better as a bridging stimulus than a clicker.

4. So what does this mean?

Much like most things - unfortunately it falls under the heading of 'we mostly don't know'. However, most scientists seem to agree that the clicker does become predictive of a reward and thus, is a conditioned or secondary reinforcer. Does this aid in training? Again, the jury is out - some studies suggest yes, others no.

However, they are tools that many people enjoy using and they provide a focus for the handler to recognise and reward correct behaviours in their dog - and this can only be a good thing!

5. To Click or not to Click?

In summary - it is your choice! I really enjoy using a clicker for training new behaviours as I find that my dogs respond well to it and that I have more focus when using a clicker. I also sometimes take my clicker out if I am introducing a learnt task in a more distracting environment for the first time. I can only say from my own experience, that my dogs recognise the use of the clicker and associate it with pleasant outcomes - so I believe they give me more of their attention when I use this as a training aid.

If you would like to read more about clicker training then "Reaching the Animal Mind" by Karen Pryor is a lovely introduction from a trainers point of view.

For more information on the Secondary Reinforcement, Bridging and Marking hypotheses then please see the articles below:

Dorey, N.R. and Cox, D.J., 2018. Function matters: a review of terminological differences in applied and basic clicker training research. PeerJ, 6, p.e5621.

Feng, L.C., Howell, T.J. and Bennett, P.C., 2016. How clicker training works: Comparing reinforcing, marking, and bridging hypotheses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 181, pp.34-40.

As always, please let me know if you have any questions and comment below to let me know what topics you would like to hear about in the future!

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