To click
or not to
click -
the how to train

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To click or not to click, the how to train question,
copyright (c) 2021 Frania Shelley-Grielen.  All rights reserved.

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, their well being and welfare.”

When I train, I work with verbal markers, it seems to me that offering a robotic
signal in response to something the animal is not sure of to begin with, is not
fair or kind. Especially when that animal is cooperating on a supposedly mutual
process.  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

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 instantaneously 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 him 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 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?
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."
212-722-2509 /

Website copyright
Frania Shelley-Grielen
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...
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... . A further investigation
should consider the possibility
that the melodic contour of
the trainer’s voice could
improve the dogs’ learning. “
- Chiandetti and Avella
Alice Tong-Dote
Alice Tong-Dote
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