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To click
or not to
click -
the how to train
question

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To click or not to click, the how to train question, All rights
reserved (c) 2019 Frania Shelley-Grielen

What is the best way to train a dog?  Do you use positive reinforcement? Or be a pack
leader? Or, ask your dog to imitate you (seriously, it’s the latest thing)? Ask three
different people and chances are you get three different answers.  Ask three different
dog trainers and it probably gets even more confusing.  And what if you don’t want
your dog to work only for food? Isn’t that bribery?  But should anyone work for free
anyway?  Don’t pack leaders make sense to wolves and not dogs?  And how is a dog
supposed to imitate you anyway?  Debates on the ideal method to teach a dog manners
for a human world range from which of the latest theories and techniques to use, with
the largest divide falling on whether to employ force or not.  How exactly do you make
sense of it all?  

There is science on what works best.  There is a lot of science; the latest research
continues to show positive training methods to be the most effective and humane.  In
spite of this, force and punishment are still chosen by some for immediate, if not lasting,
“results” and “balance” or because dogs- at least to certain minds, being “just dogs”
don’t merit more considerate training styles.   Those drawn to humane methods may
find even that formula may not narrow it down much.  The latest protocols in positive
dog training are each one supposedly better than the next in terms of effectiveness,
whether through the use of words as opposed to clicks, or silence, or body language or
eye contact or none at all.  Who endorses what protocol can be even more important.  
Consumers respond to trainers and behaviorists more on personal magnetism than
scientific credibility.  As scientist and behavior expert, James Serpell says” "We're
much more impressed with charismatic media figures than scientists who are
thoughtful and methodical."  And dog training is a booming business for those wanting
to find services, decide to be or learn how to become a trainer, or be part of an “in”
crowd of the method and trainer of the moment.  Cesar Milan’s much disputed
dominance theories and inhumane applications may have set dog training back 50 years
but there is no denying his ardent followers embracing his techniques or his media
success.  “Clicker training” - manipulating a device to make a sound to “mark” the
moment when a dog performs a requested behavior followed by a reward – is also
having a moment in all this.  The popularity of using a clicker to train is on the rise with
online training academies and even conventions devoted to their use (it is reported that
more than 1400 participants attended “Clicker Expo” in 2016).   And the gadgets to use
and buy- each method comes with the “best and only” equipment; clickers, collars,
halters, harnesses, leashes, shirts, wraps, brushes, buckets, automatic treat dispensers,
remote sensors and toys.  Settle on what sort of training you should be doing and the
devil in the details of who to follow and what you should be using to do it, guarantees
complications.  It can feel as if only with the latest and greatest gear, can we do the best
job at training.   But gadgets and personas don’t train dogs, people do.  Or do they?  

Clickers or other event markers of behavior are believed to function as a link, marking
an event acoustically with the reinforcement to follow (“bridging stimulus” or
“secondary reinforcer”).  To fully appreciate how the device fits in to dog training, it is
useful to look at the origin of acoustic signals in laboratory studies- scientific studies
looking at stimulus and response in associative learning relied on automatic signals to
mark an event or to signal when a reward would arrive to reinforce a desired behavior.  
These experiments were designed specifically to eliminate any human interaction to
muddy the waters of what an animal was responding to.  Robotic, neutral signal were
preferred.  Animal trainers working out of sight or distance also found the devices useful
(clicker trainer founder, Karen Pryor was a former marine mammal trainer).  However,
out of the laboratories and next to our dogs, in  the very real world of how dogs learn
with owners, trainers and environments we find little if anything that is neutral or
robotic.

When it comes to how animals learn, there is no one way.  All animals learn in a variety
of ways; though trial and error, by association, through insight and socially.  Most of
conventional dog training whether utilizing force or reward relies on associative
learning.  Even so, dogs are wonderful social learners, learning ably from both other
dogs and humans.  How we interact with dogs also impacts how well they learn and
perform for us.  A recent study by Drs. Jamesion, Baxter and Murray examining the
relationships of working dogs and their handlers, found that rates of accurate results in
detection dogs rose with familiar handlers and positive relationships.  Our relationships
with our animals are so significant and prized that setting up a rival for our attention is
a particularly effective training method using social learning.  Alex, the famous parrot,
was taught via the “Model/Rival Method” wherein a human rival for his owner’s
attention would perform/model a requested behavior for Alex to perform.  Social
learning can also be used to teach an “imitation rule” for dogs to follow with our own
selves as the model.  Scientists Claudia Fugazza and Adam Miklosi published their “Do
as I do” method of training in a 2015 paper.  The technique, consisting of first gaining a
dog’s attention using eye contact and language, demonstrating the behavior requested,
giving a “Do It!” command (repeating these steps as needed) and marking/thanking/
informing with praise or food or petting as a reward was found to be “more efficient
than shaping/clicker training for teaching dogs complex object-related tasks and goal
directed sequences of actions.”  In a more recent study, in  2018, the researchers showed
that puppies learn most ably from humans who make eye contact and speak to the dogs
before demonstrating a new behavior to copy and from watching unknown puppies (as
opposed to their mothers) perform behaviors- No matter the species, watching someone
new is apparently more interesting than listening to mom.

If you live with a dog, no doubt, you already know just how much our dogs learn
through observation or social learning.  And if you have more than one dog at home
you have constant evidence of what they are learning from each other.  And there’s a
reason we are all spelling out words like “walk” “car” and “dog park” and “beach”
around the dog.   What about hundreds and hundreds of words?  There’s Chaser, the
border collie who Dr. John Pilley taught over 1,0000 words.  Pilley’s paper on Chaser
outlined his method of training:  call Chaser by name, hold up an object and repeat the
name of the object 4-5 times.  In a phone interview, shortly after the paper came out, Dr.
Pilley told me Chaser’s appetite for learning was inexhaustible, at times more than her
human teachers could respond to.

So if we can just show dogs what we want, why continue to train them any other way?
We may have never given it much thought or be the most comfortable doing something
the way we’ve always done it, the way everyone else is doing it or the way the latest
celebrity trainer says we should be doing it. Again, science will tell us, the most effective
methods are force free.  Punishment can produce immediate results; it will also destroy
trust, give rise to displacement behaviors and need to be increased to prevent
habituation.  As to comparing associative learning methods, recent studies have shown
no difference between clicker training, using a verbal marker or training with food alone
and even better results with social learning methods.  They have also raised significant
questions about how we use verbal markers to communicate and how the lack of a
relationship with an often unknown dog trainer used in research can impact study
results.  These questions beg us to consider taking mainstream dog training out of the
perhaps antiquated world of operant conditioning and learning by association and
relying more on the way dogs and people are already learning more effectively -
socially.  So, why is it taking us so long to get with the program?  Why are there
more people going to conventions on the latest in something like clicker training
and zero conventions on social learning?

When asked what the benefits of clicker training are, hundreds of respondent’s familiar
with the method completed an online survey listing their belief that it was an added
incentive for dogs being trained along with enhancing performance.  They also referred
to the clicker as a form of communication.  The survey results, published in 2018, by
researchers at La Trobe University showed 586 surveys were completed with 92.3% of
the respondents being female and 6.3 % being male.  This demographic speaks volumes
as to gender preferences for training styles; positive dog training clearly resounds with
women as opposed to men.  Participants  defined clicker training more as a method
rather than an attachment to a mechanism agreeing: “clicker training refers to
training that uses a mechanical clicker, but many also included training that uses a
verbal marker” with ‘“verbal “yes”, verbal “good”, whistle, mouth click, finger snap,
as being equally effective.”’  Even with the consensus that markers can range in
acoustics from the spoken to the click, there remains no small disagreement amongst
trainers or scientists about which is better or why.  Including the hundreds of trainers in
the survey study, markers are thought to be more than just a signal for an event by
offering feedback to the dog.  

To test whether words, sounds or no marker would make a difference, a 2016 study by
Chiandetti and Avella compared training by unfamiliar dog trainers with, a clicker and
a treat, a spoken “Bravo” and a treat and a treat only.  Dogs were trained to open a bread
box and to generalize the task to an object that had the same function but appeared
different.  The researchers found no significant differences in any of the treatments.  
They noted ‘learning seems to be independent from the type of sound anticipating the
food reward, and even more strikingly, it seems to be equivalent either with or without
the clicker sound or the word “Bravo.”  In this study, experimenters held to saying the
word “Bravo” in a flat and uniform tone, but how might these results be different if the
experimenters spoke with the sort of inflection and emotion that we use in everyday
training life?  The scientists concluded:

          “The fact that dogs pay high attention to other human cues besides the reward-
    ing ones, as for instance those communicative signals shown with ostensive
    communication,  makes social forms of learning more effective than learning
    based on clicker training, as recently demonstrated by Fugazza and Miklósi. In
    this sense,we can expect that an enthusiastic regulation of the trainer’s tone of
    voice might modulate the efficacy of the learning. Indeed, dogs (and horses)
    respond congruently to verbal commands as human infants do. In our experi-
    ment, the word “Bravo” was pronounced in a neutral and consistent way across
    trials, thus resembling more the automatic click-clack of the clicker than an
    enthusiastic trainer. A further investigation should consider the possibility that
    the melodic contour of the trainer’s voice could improve the dogs’ learning. “

Clicker trainers claim that dogs that are clicker trained are trained faster and acquire
complex behaviors more efficiently.   Those who eschew clickers maintain that clicker
trained dogs are more excitable and impulsive.   Another study, done later in 2018, by
Feng, Hodgens, Woodhead, et al., compared dog owners training their own dogs using
either clicker training (clicker plus food) or food only training and found no specific
advantages or drawbacks with either method in terms of dog owner relationship or
impacts on the dog’s impulsivity or problem training skills.  Owners were followed
over a six week training course and while owners did report difficulty with the clicker
method initially they also reported that it had a benefit when teaching a behavior at a
where the dog was not in eye contact with the owner (nose touching a cone).  The
authors concluded that the “study provides the first evidence that clicker training may
make certain tricks less challenging to train, but also that it may not produce benefits as
greatly as previously reported.”

Clicker training may not be a superior training method but again, this does not mean
that aspects of  its use do not have advantages for training in certain environments or
with certain species.  Clickers signal the imminent arrival of a food reward which can
keep an animal performing a behavior even when the reward does not follow.  Studies
find animals continue to offer cued behaviors for a period of time without being
rewarded.  These tests to determine how long before a behavior is “extinguished” are
surely stressful and frustrating for the animal subject to them.  Conversely, when the
signal predicting the reinforcer is faithfully followed by a reward, the animal can
experience a sense of control in the pattern.  Captive and domestic animals deprived of
choice and control are routinely stressed by changes in schedule and routine and shelter
animals even more so.  Cats are extremely territorial and most comfortable in their own
home territory; they not do well in with new or changed environments and less so in
shelters.  Cats in shelters have been found to exhibit signs of extreme stress in reluctance
to eat and interact socially and in increased hiding behaviors.  Deprived of familiar
environments and slow to acclimate to new situations and people, cats, may in fact,
take comfort in the neutral aspect of a device signaling a reward as opposed to an
unknown and untrusted human.   A 2017 study by Kogan, Kolus, et al. looked at how
training shelter cats with clickers (verbal markers were included in the
definition of “clicker training) might reduce stress and increase welfare along with
adoptability.  The cats were successfully clicker trained to offer a variety of behaviors
such as target, spin, sit and high five.  Such favorable results prompted the authors to
remark “this type of training allows for predictable interactions thereby increasing an
animal’s sense of control and the predictability of it’s environment, and as a result, it
well being and welfare.”

When I train dogs or cats, I work with verbal markers, it seems to me, to offer a robotic
signal in response to something the animal is not sure of to begin with, is not fair or
kind.  I also find clickers an awkward accessory for training.  Marking behavior and the
timing of reward delivery are crucial and need to happen in less than mere seconds
(studies show that more than 3 seconds are a missed opportunity).  In practice, it soon
becomes apparent that being able to successfully time marking the requested behavior
at the moment it happens is a skill that requires experience, attention and practice.   
Once that skill is achieved, for myself and for most of the trainers I have observed, it is
way more precise when marked verbally where vision and voice can be simultaneous
compared to the extra time needed to manipulate a device or clicker.  Theoretical
differences aside, surely we know that it is nearly impossible with the range of
communication in body language and emotion to ever be neutral around an animal
much less uninformative – clever Hans anyone?

Recently, I attended a course on theory and training skills where a good number of the
dog trainers were clicker only devotees and passionate about it.  Some coaches during
training exercises remonstrated those who inflected any emotion in the use of a verbal
marker.  This schism of to click or not to click and how, can be a not so positive divide in
the world of positive dog training.  We can all appreciate that training, good welfare
based training, is relationship based and relationship building but we are divided on
how to use a verbal marker or accepting that these markers are multipurpose in
marking an event, informing and communicating.

Clicker confusion for the animals can be a concern as well.  In most group dog training
classes training is often done without sufficient spacing to make each click distinctive
for each animal but the dogs are vigilant in watching every move we make before
handing over a treat - where's the actual marker then?  If we add in imprecise timing to
the mix, an animal is more likely to associate the most recent click in time no matter
who it’s coming from.  (Studies on clicker training routinely examine one individual
animal with one trainer.)  The course I took paired 12 trainers paired with 12 assistants
clicking at 12 mini donkeys within a few feet from each other.  Working in tandem, the
clicks were meant to signal to the assistant as well as the donkey.  With clicks coming so
close in time from trainers spaced so closely together, I could not tell, without looking,
which trainer was clicking for which donkey- and with those ears, the donkeys could
not have missed a single click, no matter where it came from.  Because clicks were
followed by treats  offered directly under the donkey’s muzzle, there was thankfully
no mistaking who got which reward.  

Clicker training’s popularity begins and ends with the people using it, as popular as it
may be it is not what is teaching our dogs.  Dogs are excellent learners whether we use
a clicker or a verbal marker, food alone or show them what we would like them to do.  
Dogs learn from us all the time, whether we spell the words out or not.  There is a story
told in dog training circles of a trainer demonstration on how to teach a dog not to pull
on leash.  The trainer demonstrates a “red light, green light” technique in which the
moment the dog begins to pull the trainer stops moving and the very second the dog
stops pulling the trainer moves forward.  This exercise is one the most challenging to
perform for people because the timing has to be exquisitely coordinated in order to
effectively teach by association.  Precisely stopping with moving forward when the
leash is being pulled creates an association of pulling and not moving ahead, while
instaneously moving forward when the pulling stops creates an association of loose
leash and forward motion.  Remember, there are one or two seconds to teach this.  
Applying timing and executing a response to the red lights or green lights are
hardest for the people doing the exercise and not the dog.  Try it.  The story goes
that the trainer demonstrating the technique worked with a leash with a number
of knots in its length, he liked how they gave her a better hold on the leash and for
no other reason.  After explaining how timing, skill and response worked to teach a
dog not to pull the trainer was asked only one question by his audience: “Where could
they buy that special leash to stop the pulling?’  It’s not the leash or the clicker but it
is how we say the words we use, the training, teaching and communicating that stops
the pulling

– Chiandetti, C., Avella, S., Fongaro, E., Cerri, F., (2016) Can clicker training facilitate conditioning in dogs?
Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 184, 109-116.

-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,
23, 1-9.

– Feng, L.C., Hodgens, N. H., Woodhead, J.K., Howell, T.K., Bennett, P.C., (2018) Is  clicker training (clicker +
food) better than food-only training for novice companion dogs and their owners?
Applied Animal
Behaviour Science
, 204, 81-93.

-Fugazza, C., Miklosi, A., (2015) Social learning in dog training: the effectiveness of the Do as I do method
compared to shaping/clicker training.  A
pplied Animal Behaviour Science. 171, 146-151.

- Fugazza, C., Moesta, A., Pogany, A., Miklosi, A., (2018) Social learning from conspecifics and humans in
dog puppies.
Scientific Reports, 8, 9257.

-Jamesion, T.J., Baxter, G.S., Murray, P.J., (2018) You Are Not My Handler! Impact of Changing Handlers on
Dogs' Behaviours and Detection Performance.
Animals. 9;8(10).

- Kogan, L., Kolus, C., Schoenfeld-Tacher, R. (2017) Assessment of Clicker Training for Shelter Cats.  
Animals, 7, 73.

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"When it comes to how animals
learn, there is no one way.  All
animals learn in a variety of
ways; though trial and error,
by association, through insight
and socially.  Most of
conventional dog training
whether utilizing force or
reward relies on associative
learning.  Even so, dogs are
wonderful social learners,
learning ably from both other
dogs and humans."
AnimalBehaviorist.us
info@animalbehaviorist.us
212-722-2509 /
646-228-7813

Website copyright
Frania Shelley-Grielen
The fact that dogs pay high
attention to other human cues
besides the rewarding ones,
as for instance those
communicative signals
shown with ostensive
communication,  makes social
forms of learning more
effective than learning based
on clicker training, as recently
demonstrated by Fugazza
and Miklósi. In this sense, we
can expect that an enthusiastic
regulation of the trainer’s
tone of voice might modulate
the efficacy of the learning.
Indeed, dogs (and horses)
respond congruently to verbal
commands as human infants
do. In our experiment, the word
“Bravo” was pronounced in
a neutral and consistent way
across trials, thus resembling
more the automatic click-clack
of the clicker than an
enthusiastic trainer. A further
investigation should consider
the possibility that the melodic
contour of the trainer’s voice
could improve the dogs’ learning. “
- Chiandetti and Avella
Elivssa