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Comparing trainers' reports of clicker use to the use of clickers in applied research studies: methodological differences may explain conflicting results

By Lynna C Feng, Tiffani J Howell, Pauleen C Bennett

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Clicker training refers to an animal training technique, derived from laboratory-based studies of animal learning and behaviour, in which a reward-predicting signal is delivered immediately following performance of a desired behaviour, and is subsequently followed by a reward. While clicker training is popular amongst dog training practitioners, scientific evaluation in applied settings has been largely unsuccessful in replicating the benefits of reward-predicting signals seen in laboratory animal studies. Here we present an analysis of dog trainers’ advice and perceptions, conducted to better understand clicker training as it occurs in the dog training industry. Twenty-five sources (13 interviews with dog trainers, 5 websites, and 7 books) were analysed using a deductive content analysis procedure. We found that, for many sources, “clicker training” referred not only to the technique, but also to a philosophy of training that emphasises positive reinforcement and the deliberate application of Learning Theory principles. Many sources reported that clicker training was fun, for both dog and handler, but that it could be frustrating for handlers to learn and sometimes cumbersome to juggle the extra equipment. In addition, while most sources recommended clicker training particularly when training new behaviours, many stated that it was no longer needed once the dog had learned the desired behaviour. When comparing industry recommendations to methods used in applied studies, different criteria were used for predictor signal conditioning. Inadequate conditioning of the predictor signal in empirical evaluations could partly explain the lack of learning benefits in applied studies. While future research is needed to verify the practitioner beliefs in a wider population, these results provide an in-depth description of what clicker training is, at least for the sources analysed, and a potential starting point for understanding methodological factors that could contribute to previous studies’ failure to demonstrate the benefits purported to exist by industry practitioners.


Marcy Wilhelm-South

Purdue University

Date 2017
Publication Title Pet Behaviour Science
Volume 3
Pages 18
ISBN/ISSN 2445-2874
Publisher University of Cordoba
DOI 10.21071/pbs.v0i3.5786
Language English
Additional Language English
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal roles
  2. Dogs
  3. Learning
  4. Mammals
  5. open access
  6. perceptions
  7. Pets and companion animals
  8. training
  1. open access