It is often said that a dog will learn faster if you teach it something about the clicker. But is this really true?
In two studies, clicker trainers were asked which points speak for clicker training from their point of view. Among others, the following arguments were given:
However, these are all subjective impressions. Whether clicker training really has these effects is not so clear from a scientific point of view.
The effectiveness of the Clicker
Meanwhile, there are several studies with different domesticated animal species about the effectiveness of the clicker in training a specific task. Two of the studies were conducted with horses, one with dwarf goats and three with dogs. This means that there are six studies that investigate the effectiveness of the clicker. And the results are surprisingly ambiguous. Only one of them – namely the one with the dwarf goats – actually found faster learning rates in the group in which the clicker was used. This is also the only study in which the study process was completely automated and humans played no role whatsoever. The question here is how transferable this would be in the practice of dog training.
You can see an overview here:
In the study by Chiandetti and colleagues the test dogs learn to push open a standard bread basket. One group is rewarded with a marker word plus a treat, one group receives a “click” and a treat for each correct behavior, and for the third group there was only one treat for each correct behavior – so there was no intentionally conditioned secondary booster. The researchers measured the extent to which the groups differed in learning duration. And lo and behold: it makes no difference whether there is an additional secondary booster besides food. So the dogs learn equally fast in all groups.
Influence on the dog-human relationship?
Similar results were obtained in a previously unpublished study by Lynna Feng (presented at the Pet Behaviour Science 2017 Open Conference). In her study, the dogs were trained by their owners in two groups of six weeks each. In one group, the owner used a clicker during the training sessions. In the second group, an intentionally conditioned signal was not used. There were six tasks in total. A new task was added every week. In addition, the owners filled out a questionnaire that allowed conclusions to be drawn about the quality of the relationship between owner and dog. The tasks included:
The results of this study show that there were no differences in learning success between the “Food” and “Clicker” groups. Also, the owners in both groups had comparable levels of enjoyment during training and lasted for comparable lengths of time. In both groups there was a similar decrease in training intensity within the six weeks. The assumption that the owners are more motivated by the clicker training could therefore not be confirmed. Furthermore, the use of the Clicker has no influence on the relationship between dog and owner compared to training without the Clicker.
Smith & Davis (2008) also found no differences in the learning time between a clicker group and a control group for a simple task (nudge cone with nose). However, when the primary enhancer was omitted in both groups (but in the clicker group there was still a “click” after each nose touch), the behavior was shown to last longer in the clicker group than in the control group. So the behavior was more deletion resistant in the clicker group. These results again suggest that the clicker group itself has an amplifying effect as a secondary amplifier (see article “How does a clicker work”).
Processing the clicker via the amygdala?
It is often claimed that the clicker is so effective in training (which it is de facto not) because the “click” is processed directly via the amygdala. This is merely a hypothesis put forward by dog trainer Karen Pryor. To date, there is no scientific data that could confirm this assumption. According to this hypothesis, for example, a marker word would have to be less effective if it were not processed directly through the amygdala. There is no scientific evidence for this either.
Contrary to the subjective perception of users, there is no scientific evidence that dogs learn faster or better with the help of a clicker. Neither the owner’s enjoyment of training nor the dog’s motivation seems to depend on the use of a clicker. Furthermore, there is no evidence that clicker training strengthens the relationship between owner and dog.