Why We Click

There is no longer any doubt. Clicker training is here to stay.

More and more animal trainers are using it.

Although I work with dogs, not dinosaurs, I too am a dedicated clicker trainer, as are most of the instructors who teach for me at AutumnGold. However, while the theoretical underpinnings of clicker training are solid – and date back to Skinner’s original operant conditioning studies of the 1930’s – there is surprising little published research regarding its application to dog training. (There are even fewer studies of its effectiveness for training velociraptors. Huh. Who knew?). Even more surprising is the fact that the results of the dog studies that are available are not unequivocally in the “Yay, Clicker Training!” camp. Rather, their results have been lukewarm at best, with some showing only limited (or no) benefit.

Lucky for us, Lynna Feng, a graduate student at La Trobe University in Victoria, has taken on clicker training as her PhD research topic. I wrote about Lynna’s first paper in the Science Dog essay, “The Meaning of Click“. In her most recent publication, Lynna surveys the popularity of clicker training among dog trainers and asks the question “Why do we click“?


The Study: Lynna and her team used several approaches to this study. They directly interviewed a group of 13 dog trainers (8 clicker trainers, 3 non-clicker trainers, 2 uncommitted); reviewed a series of 7 best-selling dog books whose primary subject is clicker training; and examined five different click-dedicated websites. Data were coded and analyzed using a validated procedure called qualitative content analysis. This process describes the targeted phenomenon within a framework of predefined questions. In this case, the questions that the researchers were attempting to answer were:

  1. What is clicker training?
  2. Why do people use clicker training [with dogs]?
  3. What methods are generally considered to be “best practice” in relation to clicker training?

Here is what they found. Keep your clicker close by cuz this is really good stuff.

Results – What is Clicker Training? The study generated a lot of information, so I will attempt to distill this into results that are most relevant to dog trainers:

  • Philosophy or Technique? The majority of dog trainers view clicker training as both a training philosophy and a technique.  As a philosophy, the non-aversive and dog-centric nature of clicker training plus dogs’ positive experience of clicker training were emphasized. As a training technique, trainers espoused more practical views, such as “clicker training as a way to identify desirable behaviors in a dog with a clear signal (marker)” and “Using a clicker communicates to my dog that a primary reinforcer will be coming soon“.
  • The Dog’s Experience: Generally, trainers focused more on the communication properties of the clicker (i.e. marking a behavior and communicating to the dog that they are doing the ‘right thing”) rather than on its function as a secondary reinforcer. This is a rather important difference from the results of empirical research which suggests that the primary function of the click sound to an animal is as a secondary (conditioned) reinforcer. However, when applied to dog training, the clicker appears to be viewed first and foremost as an important communication tool that enhances the training experience and promotes learning. (More about this later).

Results: Why Click? The most consistently reported reason to clicker train was the perception that it helps dogs to learn more rapidly and effectively. Trainers also reported a number of additional reasons that they choose this training method:

  • Clicker training promotes active learning and encourages dogs to think for themselves. The end result is a dog who is eager to learn, more attentive, happy and confident. (This benefit was strongly contrasted with traditional training methods that focus more on instilling command compliance).
  • For the trainer, clicker training was reported to be easy to learn, encourages accurate timing and proper technique, and allows the trainer to better understand their dog’s learning process.
  • Many trainers mentioned their relationship with their dog, saying that clicker training strengthens their bond and improves communication (there is that communication thing again….).


Results: What are the “Best Practices”? Several broad categories of advice were reported:

  • Introducing the clicker: Both “charging” the clicker (repetitions of click-treat [CT] not contingent upon a targeted behavior) and introducing the clicker by using CT to reinforce a simple, known behavior were recommended. There was no consensus regarding which approach was preferred or superior. When asked about the number of repetitions of CT needed to establish the click as a secondary reinforcer, a wide range of estimates was provided – between “a few” to several hundred!
  • How to click: A wide range of opinions surfaced regarding how exactly to use the clicker. Almost all agreed that clear training criteria were essential and that the signal (click) should be applied at the exact moment that the dog is engaging in the targeted behavior. Conversely, there was not consensus about what the dog should be doing immediately after the click. This is the never-ending “click ends behavior” vs. “click during the behavior and dog maintains the behavior” argument. To date, there is no empirical evidence that supports or refutes either approach. (In fact there is no published research that even compares the two). Many (but not all) of the sources agreed that the trainer should maintain “one click/one treat” and “the treat should follow the click as closely as possible”. (Note, this second rule has some supportive evidence with dogs in the literature).
  • When to click: When asked if there were particular contexts in which clicker training was more appropriate than others, a number of sources stated that clicker training is useful for teaching almost any new behavior to dogs, and is especially effective for those that involve multiple steps or that occur at a distance from the trainer. Other sources stated that clicker training should only be used in a “controlled environment” (whatever that means) or only for certain types of training. (My particular favorite response in this section was the warning by some trainers that clicker training should be not be used “unless you are a professional“. Hmmm…Really?).


Conclusions: The researchers’ goals with this survey study were to identify specific questions regarding clicker training with dogs that can be addressed through future empirical research. Here are several questions that they identify:

  1. Are the benefits associated with clicker training related to the level of experience that dogs have with this training approach? (It is hypothesized that some of the more pronounced benefits that many trainers noted, such as enhancing the bond that they have with their dog and improving communication, come about as a result of prolonged and consistent clicker training over a period of weeks and months).
  2. How long does it actually take to “charge” a clicker (i.e. to build the association that click always predicts treat)? Is it a few pairings, a few dozen, several hundred? Are multiple training sessions required or can this be accomplished in one session? Related to the previous question – What role does repeated and prolonged exposure to “charging” the clicker play in dogs’ ability to respond to clicker training?
  3. And my favorite: Does clicker training improve communication and enhance the relationship between the handler and her dog? If so, how does this develop and how is it expressed (or measured)?

Take Away for Dog Folks: The point made several times in this paper was that the benefits of clicker training to dogs and to their trainers appear to develop over time as the dog becomes more and more experienced with clicker training. This contrasts sharply with the methodology used in studies of clicker training with dogs, all of which tested the efficacy of clicker training with dogs who had little or no previous experience with a clicker and used a relatively small number of CT repetitions, short training sessions and simple target behaviors. This led me to wonder “Maybe the studies that have been published to date have studied something that is fundamentally different from what we, as trainers (and our dogs) are experiencing as clicker training in the real world“.

Here is what I mean: One possible reason that dog trainers, many who believe emphatically that clicker training is a highly effective tool, are at odds with the less than stellar results of the published studies is that perhaps we are not talking about the same things. In other words, the way in which clicker training has been studied with dogs (and, one could argue, with other species as well), is not the way in which clicker training is actually used in practice. Several important differences were identified in Lynna’s study. The two most important are: (1) In practice, clicker training takes place over extended periods of time; (2) It almost always includes an established and positive relationship between the trainee (the dog) and the trainer (usually the owner).

The primary point that I came away with from this paper was that despite some continued attempts  to make it so,  clicker training as applied with dogs is not a purely behavioristic methodology. Rather, if one considers all of the new information that we have regarding the dog’s cognitive abilities, including their well-documented ability to read and understand human communication signals, then it is likely that the actual practice of clicker training involves much more than a rigid application of CT without any personal (relationship), cognitive, or emotional component. Since the studies that are in existence have studied clicker training using highly controlled behavioristic methodologies, perhaps they did not effectively measure or capture the depth and complexity of the phenomenon that is taking place when we use clicker training with dogs.

The results of this paper will hopefully be the impetus for new studies of clicker training that include dogs who have an extensive clicker history and who have established relationships with their trainer. Other elements that require study include the variety of ways in which the clicker is applied during a training session (end of behavior vs. maintain/keep going), and the many areas of training in which it is currently used (complex chains, distance training, different sports and working contexts). Personally, I look forward to reading more about Lynna’s studies and thank her and her team for undertaking work that is of immense interest to dog folks, especially those of us who are dedicated clicker trainers.

So, why do I click? I click because it works, because my dogs love it, and because, like so many others report in this study, it contributes to my ability to communicate clearly to my dogs and enhances the loving bond that I have with them. Happy training, everyone!

Cited Reference: Feng LC, Howell TJ, Bennett PC. Comparing trainers’ reports of clicker use to the use of clickers in applied research studies: methodological differences may explain conflicting results. Pet Behavior Science 2017; 3:1-18.




“Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” – Kindle Edition Now Available!

The Kindle edition of Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” is now available! Click on the image below for more information and to order.

Book description:  In her second Science Dog book, Linda Case tackles commonly held beliefs about canine nutrition, pet foods, behavior, social cognition and training. Each of the book’s 32 chapters explores a current issue that is of interest to dog owners and pet professionals and presents the scientific evidence that supports or refutes commonly held claims and beliefs. Learn about pet food ingredients and research showing that what is on the label may not always be in the food, about measures of food quality (and what consumers may not know about the foods that they buy), and about the safety and digestibility of popular dog treats and chews. Other chapters review new information regarding how dogs communicate, factors that help or inhibit a dog’s ability to learn, and the effectiveness of different types of training. Find out if dogs are capable of “knowing what someone else knows”, if they feel empathy for their friends, if they bark for no reason, and if they are capable of feeling guilt following a misdeed. Learn more about breed stereotyping, factors that influence our perceptions of dogs, and which canine characteristics most influence our attraction to particular dogs. This newest Science Dog book has something for everyone who works with and trains dogs, as well as for those who simply love dogs and enjoy learning more about our canine best friends.



New Book! “Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog”

Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” (paperback version) is now available! Click on the image below for more information and to order. (Kindle version will be available soon!)

Book description:  In her second Science Dog book, Linda Case tackles commonly held beliefs about canine nutrition, pet foods, behavior, social cognition and training. Each of the book’s 32 chapters explores a current issue that is of interest to dog owners and pet professionals and presents the scientific evidence that supports or refutes commonly held claims and beliefs. Learn about pet food ingredients and research showing that what is on the label may not always be in the food, about measures of food quality (and what consumers may not know about the foods that they buy), and about the safety and digestibility of popular dog treats and chews. Other chapters review new information regarding how dogs communicate, factors that help or inhibit a dog’s ability to learn, and the effectiveness of different types of training. Find out if dogs are capable of “knowing what someone else knows”, if they feel empathy for their friends, if they bark for no reason, and if they are capable of feeling guilt following a misdeed. Learn more about breed stereotyping, factors that influence our perceptions of dogs, and which canine characteristics most influence our attraction to particular dogs. This newest Science Dog book has something for everyone who works with and trains dogs, as well as for those who simply love dogs and enjoy learning more about our canine best friends.



Just Show Me A Sign

Like many dog trainers, I use both verbal and gestural (hand) signals as cues with my dogs. With our students at AutumnGold, we introduce both verbal and physical cues at the same time, but generally emphasize verbal signals because this is what most pet owners prefer to use with their dogs.

AG Down Stay


All of our classes include instructions for fading gestural cues in favor of  verbal cues for owners who wish to use primarily verbal signals. Students are taught to “lead with the verbal cue and follow with the gesture“, thus establishing a classical relationship (verbal signal predicts gesture signal). This connection allows the trainer to gradually fade the hand signal and eventually to rely primarily on the verbal command.

On the other hand (literally), hand signals are a lot of fun to teach and come in handy in a wide variety of exercises. For these, we offer a dedicated “hand signals” class, for students who are interested in teaching their dog distance signals and hand cues for direction or jumping. This is great fun for dogs and their people and is also helpful for students who are interested in competing in dog sports.

Chip Agility Jumping  Chip Down Signal                      CHIPPY SHOWS OFF HIS HAND SIGNALS FOR JUMPING AND DOWN

However, like many dog training practices, the use of verbal versus hand signals with dogs has not been formally studied. Until recently, that is.

Enter Biagio D’Aniello and his team of scientists at the University of Naples (among others) in Italy. I have written about this group’s research on previous occasions. They work with retrievers who are trained for water rescue work and are reporting new information regarding the dog’s communication skills and ability to learn through observation (see “With a Little Help from My Friends” and “Doggie See, Doggie Do“).

This time around, the researchers asked whether dogs who are trained to respond equally to verbal and gestural cues show a preference for one type over the other.

The Study: A group of 25 certified water rescue dogs were enrolled. The group included 10 Golden Retrievers and 15 Labrador Retrievers, composed of 12 males and 13 females. Per training protocols for water rescue, all of the dogs had been trained to respond to both verbal and gestural cues. The dogs were tested in four behaviors; sit, down, stay and come. The study was conducted in three phases. Phase 1: The four basic commands were given using gestures only. Phase 2: Commands were delivered using a verbal cue only. Phase 3: (Here is where things get tricky). Both forms of a command were given, but incongruently (i.e. they conflicted with each other). For example, the verbal command for “sit” was paired with the gesture for “down”, the verbal command for “come” was paired with the gesture for “stay”, etc. The frequencies of correct responses were recorded in the first two phases, and a “preference index” that indicated the percent of correct gestural responses was calculated for the third phase.


  1. Just a sign, please: When gestures alone were used, all of the dogs responded correctly to all four commands, with the exception of a single error (one dog missed a “down” signal). In contrast, when verbal cues were used, the dogs made a total of 18 errors. The most common mistake was failing to lie down in response to the verbal command “down”. These results suggest that dogs who were trained using both verbal and hand signal cues (and when no attempt was made to emphasize one type of signal over the other), the dogs responded more consistently to gestures than to verbal cues.
  2. Location, location, location: While dogs showed an overall preference for gestures over verbal commands, this preference was not found when the verbal command to “come” was paired with the hand signal “stay” and the owner was located a distance away from the dog. In this case, the majority of dogs (56 %) responded to the verbal command. This difference suggests that although the dogs tended to pay more attention to hand signals than to verbal commands, this preference may be overridden by the preference to stay in close proximity to the owner.
  3. Girls may be more visual: An interesting result of this paper was the sex difference that was found. Female dogs showed a strong preference for responding to hand gesture cues, while males were more likely to respond equally to both types of cue. (Note: Although there is a bit of previous research suggesting that female dogs concentrate more on visual cues than do males, the small numbers in this trial coupled with the method of scoring lead the researchers to interpret this result with caution – in other words, this may be a “statistical hiccup”).

This pilot study suggests that when dogs are trained to both hand signals and verbal commands, they will respond most consistently to hand signals. The study also suggests that context is an important factor, in that having a preference to be close to the trainer may override a preference for gestural signals, leading a dog to choose the signal (verbal or gestural) that leads to proximity.

Take Away for Dog Folks

The finding that dogs (usually) respond better to hand signals than they do to verbal cues is probably not surprising to most trainers. This certainly supports our understanding of dogs as being highly responsive to body language and non-verbal cues. Still, it is always gratifying to find scientific data that supports one’s (previously unsupported) suppositions.

This is Data

Do hand signals have enhanced saliency? However, is it possible that there is more to the differences found in this study than is explained by the dog’s proclivity for reading body language? This paper lead me to think more deeply about these two types of signals; specifically about the type of hand signals that we choose to use.  The majority of hand signals that we use in dog training are far from being  arbitrary signals. Rather they are structured in both form and function to direct the dog’s attention or body to part or all of the targeted behavior. For example, a commonly used hand signal for “down” is  a sweeping motion from the dog’s “nose to his toes”. During training, this gesture easily doubles as both a lure when food is held in the hand and as a vehicle to deliver positive reinforcement when the hand delivers a food treat once the dog attains the down position. A reliable response to the hand signal alone is achieved by gradually removing the lure from the signaling hand and switching to +R from the opposite hand. We are then left with a hand signal that has, well, enhanced saliency for the dog, if you will. A second example is the use of body language and hand signals to inform a dog about the direction to run or jump in agility training. The physical signal itself has inherent meaning to the dog (we all get this). This signal is then enhanced by pairing it with food or an opportunity to tug. Contrast these gesture examples to the variety of verbal cues that we use with dogs (sit, down, come, etc). All of these, of course, are completely arbitrary from the dog’s point of view. We could just as easily use the word “down” to train a down command as the word “pumpkin” or “fluffy butt”. While we do enhance saliency by pairing these terms with reinforcers, they cannot be structured in the same way that gestures can to be naturally obvious (salient) to the dog.

So, in addition to dogs being highly attentive to body language (I think we all agree on that), it also seems that the hand signals that we select function to naturally attract our dog’s attention and direct behavior. The trainer “beefs up” this attraction by pairing the signal with positive reinforcement. Therefore, gestural cues may always have one step up over verbal cues when comparing the two (when the owner is in close proximity). Here is an idea – try training a sit using a down hand signal or teaching an agility dog to jump in the opposite direction from which you are pointing. In addition to this being a bit of a training challenge (more than a bit, I suspect), I would hypothesise that when arbitrary gestural signals are compared with verbal cues, we might see a leveling out of the preferences for gesture versus verbal signals. Just an idea……any researchers biting?

A role for individual preference and reinforcement history? I also pondered what the influence of an individual’s preference might be in this type of testing. All dogs tend to have certain exercises that they enjoy more than others. Some of these exercises may be inherently reinforcing for the dog while others may simply be preferred because they have a strong reinforcement history with the trainer (i.e. the exercise has been practiced and reinforced more frequently). In the case of this study, we might expect that dogs trained for water rescue work would be highly bonded to their owners and would also have a very strong reinforcement history for the “come” command. It would be interesting to explore verbal versus gesture preferences in dogs who are trained for different types of work, who may have different behavior preferences and reinforcement histories. Such a test would be analogous to the study that this same group did with dog’s looking back for help, in which they found some very interesting differences.

In practice: From a practical viewpoint, as a trainer, these results suggest to me that we should be doubly careful when fading hand signals in favor of verbal cues, especially when training a dog’s less preferred behaviors. While this research suggests that dogs are asking us to “just show me a sign”, it also seems that their responses will be influenced by a number of factors, including looking for the cue that tells them what they want to hear!

Dottie Come when Called


Cited Study: D’Aniello B, Scandurra A, Alterisio A, Valsecchi P, Prato-Previde E. The importance of gestural communication: A study of human-dog communication using incongruent information. Animal Cognition 2016; DOI: 10.1007/s10071-016-1010-5.

The Meaning of Click

Hi. My name is Linda and I am a clicker trainer. In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit that I have been using a clicker for many years. My use began with the common gateway secondary reinforcer, the verbal cue (“Yes!”). While that worked well for a while, I eventually found that I needed more. I wanted a marker that was accurate and clear to my dog and something that could provide that immediate “ah ha!” moment in dog training that we all crave.

Cooper Clicker Training Heel


Recently, my husband suggested that perhaps I am too dependent upon my clicker. It is possible that finding them all over the house, in the pockets of my jackets and jeans, in the car, and oh yeah, one in the refrigerator, had something to do with his concern. I emphatically denied this and insisted that I could quit clicker training any time that I wanted to.

He called my bluff and suggested that I try using food alone, no clicker. Admittedly, I did not react well.

cold dead modified


Hyperbole aside, why is it that many trainers, myself included, are so completely sold on clicker training? While the short answer is a forehead thumping “Duh…..because it works so well“, a longer exploration into clicker training, plus a bit of science, is needed to fully understand this phenomenon.

Operant learning: There is a large body of  scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of using consequences to teach new behaviors, a type of associative learning called operant learning or conditioning.  Although the consequences that are used can be either aversive or pleasurable, most trainers focus on pleasurable consequences, or positive reinforcers. For dogs, a universal primary positive reinforcer is food, though verbal praise, petting, and play are also important. (Note: A primary reinforce is a stimulus that is inherently rewarding to the animal, with no need for prior conditioning). Animals learn most efficiently when the targeted behavior is immediately followed by delivery of the positive reinforcer. Even brief delays between the behavior and the reinforcer can slow or prevent learning.

The timing issue: Herein lies the problem. In the practical context of animal training, there are numerous  situations in which it is impossible for a trainer to deliver a primary reinforcer at the exact time that the desired behavior is being offered. Examples with dogs include when teaching retrieving, targeting distant objects, or moving a paw or other body part in a very precise manner. Secondary reinforcers help to solve this problem. These are signals that are clear to the animal, such as a sound or light flash, and which are purposefully paired with a primary reinforcer. For marine mammal trainers, a whistle is used. For dog trainers, it is the click.


Click-Treat: The sound of the clicker is transformed from a neutral (meaningless) stimulus to a conditioned (secondary) stimulus by repeatedly pairing the click sound with the delivery of a food treat (the primary reinforcer). After multiple repetitions of Click-Treat (hereafter CT), in which the click sound reliably precedes and predicts the treat, the click begins to possess the same properties as  the treat itself. Clicker training allows the trainer to precisely target (mark) tiny bits of behavior at the exact moment they are occurring. The click sound becomes analogous to a bridge in time – saying to the dog “That’s it!! That thing that you are doing right this instant is what will earn you the yummy treat that is coming shortly!”

Well, at least that is what we think the click means to our dogs………

The meaning of click: Recently, a team of Australian researchers reviewed clicker training and examined the mechanisms through which clicker training might enhance learning (1). They looked at each of the three functions that dog trainers typically attribute to the click –  a secondary reinforcer,  a marker of behavior, and as a bridging stimulus. Although we typically give equal weight to all three of these functions, the current evidence, collected primarily in laboratory animals and pigeons, is telling us differently:

Secondary reinforcer? As described earlier, once a clicker is “charged” as a secondary reinforcer, it should possess the same reinforcing properties as the primary reinforcer (treat). This means that the click sound alone, without being followed by a treat, is expected to cause an increase in the targeted behavior and help learned behaviors to be resistant to extinction. An unpairing of the connection between secondary and primary reinforce should also lead to a lessening of these effects. All of these outcomes have been tested in rats and pigeons and the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that a conditioned signal (click), when consistently paired with a primary reinforce (treat) does indeed take on the properties of the primary reinforcer. The researchers also provide  evidence (in rats) of a neuropsychological nature – dopamine release has been shown to occur at times that would be expected if a secondary reinforcer was the driving mechanism for learning.

Event marker? Almost all clicker trainers, when asked to explain why clicker training works so well, include some version of “it precisely marks the behavior that I wish to reinforce, at the exact moment that it is happening“.  I agree with this account, given my own practical training experiences. But, of course, belief is not the same as evidence.  What does the current science say about using an auditory signal to mark behavior? As a marker, the signal (click) must draw the animal’s attention to the event. So, if a signal functions to mark behavior, we would expect to see an effect of the signal, though at a lower intensity, when it is not paired with a primary reinforcer. For dogs, this means that hearing the “click” sound, regardless of its pairing with food, should emphasize that moment and thus enhance learning whatever behavior is occurring. Again, though not tested with dogs (yet), this hypothesis has been tested with laboratory animals. The evidence suggests that learning is somewhat enhanced by a marker alone but that the pairing of the marker with a primary reinforcer is decidedly more potent. While “click” may indeed be a marker for behaviors, this function is intricately related to its role as a secondary reinforce rather than marking an event simply by bringing the animal’s attention to it.

Bridging stimulus? The bridging stimulus hypothesis focuses on the “a treat will be coming to you soon” portion of clicker training and applies when the dog is a distance away or there is a temporal (time) delay between the behavior and delivery of the food treat. According to the bridging hypothesis, rather than simply marking the behavior, the signal communicates to the animal that reinforcement will be delayed (but is still promised). A limited number of published studies have examined this function, but the evidence that is available suggests that an auditory signal (such as a click) may bridge the temporal gap between behavior and food. However, all of the studies used a type of training process called “autoshaping” which is a highly controlled and contrived experimental process. Whether or not a click acts as a bridge in the practical and varied setting of dog training remains to be studied.

Take Away for Dog Folks

The bulk of the current evidence coming from other species, primarily lab animals who are tested in highly controlled conditions, tells us that the major way in which clicker training enhances learning is through the click’s function as a secondary reinforcer. As far as event marking and acting as a bridging stimulus, these may be in effect, but if so, they are in a supporting role rather than being the star players. So what might this information mean for we who love to click?

  1. In its role as a secondary reinforcer, the click takes on the pleasurable properties of the primary reinforcer, food treats. Pairing of the click with the treat (charging the clicker) is essential to both establish and maintain these properties.
  2. While clicking without treating will work for a short period of time, repeated uncoupling of the click from the treat will extinguish the connection and the click will stop being effective as it gradually reverts to a neutral stimulus.
  3.  Although most of us refer to the click as “marking” behaviors, the actual marking properties of the click appear to be intricately linked to its function as a secondary reinforcer, rather than having any stand-alone strength in this capacity. Ditto for bridging stimulus.

Bottom line? Given  these three suppositions, if you are a trainer and are in the habit of clicking without treating, you may want to stop doing that (2). The power of the click lies principally in its strength as a secondary (conditioned) reinforce, so maintaining that connection appears to be key.

As for me, this evidence provides further support for the strength of clicker training with dogs. Don’t think I will be going through any 12-step program to reduce my dependency anytime soon.

12 Step Click

Happy Training!

Cited Papers:

  1. Feng LC, Howell TJ, Bennett PC. How clicker training works: Comparing reinforcing, marking, and bridging hypotheses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2016; Accepted paper, in press.
  2. Martin S, Friedman SG. Blazing clickers. Paper presented at Animal Behavior Management Alliance Conference, Denver, CO, 2011.


Doggie See, Doggie Do?

At my training center, AutumnGold, it is not unusual to enroll students who live with and train more than one dog. A common question that these clients have is how to arrange their training sessions to allow them to train one dog while the other dog “waits his or her turn”. In most of these cases, the student laments that the dog who is not chosen for training becomes upset, does not enjoy being isolated or confined, and may even show some separation stress or frustration with the overall unfairness (in their opinion) of the entire situation.

Or, if they are clever, as my four dogs appear to be, they attempt to all participate in the training session simultaneously.

Ally, Cooper, Chip, Vinny on Pause Table


Over the years, my personal solution to this problem has been to teach each of our dogs to stay on a pause table located off of the training floor while they await their turn to train. Although it can be challenging to teach (more about this in my next blog), I like this arrangement because it is convenient and saves me from having to return to the house multiple times to get a different dog. It is also fun for the dogs because they generally receive more training time and also get to play together after the session.

Chip Cooper Pause Tables


And it appears that there may be additional benefits for the dogs.  A recent research paper provides evidence for something that I anecdotally have observed with  my own dogs and suspect that other trainers have also experienced – that dogs seem to have some ability to learn new tasks by observing other dogs.  This type of learning is called social learning (or observational learning) and it has been studied in a variety of species and contexts. However, only recently has it been studied with dogs in a training environment.

Ally learning wave dogs pause table


Social Learning: It is generally accepted that social learning plays an important role in the lives of dogs. Observing the behavior of others helps dogs to learn about their environment, modifies their responses to new situations, and may even teach them new behaviors and solutions to problems.  Within the broad category of social learning, several sub-classifications exist and these presumably reflect different degrees of cognitive involvement. Although there is debate among social scientists about definitons, the types include: social facilitation, local/stimulus enhancement, response facilitation, social emulation and imitation (1). Much of the debate among those who study social learning revolves around what information the dog is actually using and how that information is processed cognitively or consciously to change behavior. For the purposes of this essay, we are most interested in how social learning (of any type) might occur between dogs in training situations.

Mimicry Cooper and Ally


Interestingly, much of the research with social learning in dogs has focused on their ability to learn by observing human demonstrators. Common study paradigms ask dogs to either solve a food acquisition puzzle or to maneuver around a fence after having watched a person perform the correct solution. Dogs have been shown to be quite successful at these tasks, although factors such as the identity of the demonstrator, the dog’s living situation, prior training experience and age can influence success rates.

Studies that have examined the dog’s ability to learn socially from other dogs are fewer in number. There is evidence that, just as with human demonstrators, dogs will show improved performance and problem-solving ability after watching a demonstrator dog successfully complete a detour or puzzle task. An earlier study reported that puppies who were allowed to observe their mother working at a scent detection task went on to become more successful as scent dogs in adult life.

Can Dogs Learn a Trained Task from Another Dog? Most recently, researchers asked whether on not learning would be enhanced in dogs who observed another dog who had been trained to perform a novel behavior (2). This study and its results have relevance to those of us who train multiple dogs and perhaps even for group training classes.

The Study: The objective of the study was to determine if learning a new task (jumping onto a trunk or small slide) was enhanced when dogs had the opportunity to observe another dog performing the exercise prior to being trained themselves.  A group of 33 adult Labrador Retrievers was tested. All of the dogs were enrolled in the training program at the Italian School of Water Rescue, lived in homes with their owners, and had been pre-screened to ensure that the exercises used in the study were novel to them. The dogs were divided into two groups; an observer group and a control group. Observer dogs sat next to their owners and watched another handler and his trained demonstrator dog approach the obstacle (trunk or slide). The demonstrator dog then jumped up and sat on the obstacle. The exercise was demonstrated twice and then the observer dog and handler approached the obstacle and the handler attempted to train the dog to perform the exercise. The control group of dogs were held on lead in the same position but did not have the opportunity to watch the demonstrator dog before being trained for the new task. Each dog’s success or failure to demonstrate the new behavior was recorded.

Results: The dogs who had the opportunity to observe a demonstrator dog perform the new exercises were significantly more likely to succeed at the same task when asked to perform it. Specifically, 62.5 % of the observer dogs were successful compared with 23.5 % of the control dogs. Neither a dog’s sex nor his/her level of prior training experience influenced the probability that they would perform the new task successfully. Age was somewhat important, as older dogs tended to be more successful than younger dogs.

Take Away for Dog Folks

On one level, these results are not surprising. Anecdotes abound among dog folks regarding our dogs’ ability to learn from one another through observation. Ask anyone who lives with more than one dog and they will relate numerous examples of their dogs sharing information (and not always in a good way). For as long as I can remember our dogs have learned to “wait” at the door and in the car by watching each other. While I do train this command, our young dogs learn to wait very rapidly when they notice that the entire family is frozen in its tracks. Similarly, because we hike a lot with our dogs, one dog finding something yummy or smelly on the trail is quickly observed and acted upon by the others. Still, these examples may arguably fall relatively low on the social learning scale as they probably reflect social facilitation or simple stimulus enhancement.

What is exciting about the recent results is that they demonstrate, albeit with a small number of dogs, that a dog who has the opportunity to observe another dog who is performing a trained exercise (and by extension, perhaps the training of that exercise itself?) can benefit from that observation. The researchers provide several possible explanations for their positive results, one of which is that dogs may show enhanced learning when they are highly motivated to engage in the task. For example, teaching something that is target-oriented, such as jumping up onto an obstacle or retrieving a toy, may be more successful than training a static exercise such as a down stay. This difference is reflected in the results of a previous study reporting that untrained dogs did not perform well in learning a positional behavior (lying down on command) after watching a trained dog perform it (3). While dogs are often naturally interested in examining and engaging with new objects, most are decidedly less motivated to spontaneously offer a static behavior such as a sit/stay or down/stay.

These results make me consider the relative ease with which both Ally and Cooper have learned platform positions, retrieving tricks such as “put your toys in a basket” and go-outs to a target. Both regularly watch and get excited as the other is being trained in these behaviors. (And, not to put too fine a point on it, I rarely see that level of interest or excitement when I am training sit/stays and down/stays). While I have no control group for my own anecdotal experiences, these results suggest to me that having all of my dogs present and attending during a training session may have benefits that go beyond convenience. Watching the other dogs learn new things may help my observing dogs to learn more rapidly, at least in those exercises that interest and engage them.

And, for my clients who are attempting to train two dogs at the same time, I will now recommend that, if possible, they find a way that the dogs are able to observe each training session with the other dog. They may be very pleasantly surprised at the results.  Happy training everyone!


Cooper and Alice Standing Platforms


Cited References:

  1. Kubinyi E, Pongracz P, Miklosi A. Dog as a model for studying conspecific and heterospecific social learning. Journal of Veterinary Behaivor 2009; 4:31-41.
  2. Scandurra A, Mongillo P, Marinelli L, Aria M, D’Aniello B. Conspecific observational learning by adult dogs in a training context. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2016; 174:116-120.
  3. Tennie C, Glabsch E, Tempelmann S, Brauer J, Kaminski J, Call J. Dogs, Canis familiaris, fail to copy intransitive actions in third-party contextual imitation tasks. Animal Behavior 2009; 77:1491-1499.

Excerpted from: “Only Have Eyes for Your: Exploring Canine Research with the Science Dog” (2016).


The Consequences of Consequences

Operant learning is all about consequences. Most trainers and behaviorists are well-versed in the uses of pleasant and aversive stimuli as dog training consequences. These can be constructed into a 2 x 2 matrix that includes the type of stimulus (desirable/pleasant or aversive/unpleasant) as one factor and the intended behavioral change (increase or decrease response frequency) as the second factor (1).


Learning occurs when one of these four consequences lead to a change in the dog’s behavior:

  • Positive reinforcement (+R): Delivery (acquisition) of a desirable stimulus (food treat, praise, petting, play) results in an increase in the response. Example: Dog increases “sit” response to acquire petting and a food treat.
  • Negative Reinforcement (-R): Disappearance (avoidance) of an aversive stimulus (head collar pressure, collar jerk, harsh voice) results in an increase in the response that allows the dog to avoid the unpleasant stimulus. Example: Dog increases “sit” response to avoid pressure applied to head collar or collar jerk (or to avoid a horrible “ehhhh” sound emanating from the trainer. How do people produce that sound, anyway?)
  • Positive Punishment (+P): Delivery of an aversive stimulus results in a decrease in response. Example: Dog decreases standing/lying down/moving away from a sit position to avoid pressure applied to head collar or collar jerk (or the horrible “ehhhh” sound).
  • Negative Punishment (-P):  Removal of a desirable stimulus results in a decrease in the response. Example: Dog decreases standing/lying down to avoid losing access to food treats, petting praise attained whilst sitting quietly.

Petting for sitting 2         angry yelling              Petting (Desirable)                                       The dreaded “Ehhhh” sound (Aversive)

The Hypothesis: There is a general (but certainly not universal) consensus among trainers and behaviorists that training methods that emphasize positive reinforcement are more effective and more humane than those that emphasize the use of aversive stimuli. To date, there is some evidence in  the scientific literature that supports +R methods as more effective than -R (see Yogi Bear Dogs ).  And now, there is a study that examines the effects of these two different training approaches upon dogs’ levels of stress and their relationships with their owners (2).

The Study: Stephanie Deldalle and Florence Gaunet of the University of Paris-Nord and the Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive conducted an exploratory study that observed two dog training schools and their students during a series of advanced training classes. One school used primarily +R methods in the form of food treats, praise and petting to increase desired behaviors in the dogs. The second school used primarily -R methods in the form of collar corrections (pressure/jerks) and physical manipulation (pushing the dog into a sit). Neither the schools’ instructors nor their students were aware of the study’s objectives or that their school had been selected because of the type of methods that were used.

Methods: A group of 24 owner-dog pairs training at the +R school (hereafter +RS) and a group of 26 owner-dog pairs at the -R school (hereafter -RS) were studied. The dogs represented a variety of breeds and ranged in age from 8 months to 7 years. One researcher attended two sessions of a one-hour advanced class at each school and collected data for 50 minutes during each visit. Data collected included the owner’s behavior and the dog’s response and body postures when walking on a loose lead and when responding to the “sit” command. Within each session the frequencies of +R and -R stimuli used by the observed owners were also recorded. Owners were asked to complete a questionnaire at the end of the session.

Results: No differences in owner demographics or dog characteristics were found between the +RS and the -RS groups. Training results were classified by activity:

  • Response to sit command: Dogs trained using primarily -R showed significantly more mouth licking (38 % vs. 8 % of dogs), yawning (12 % vs. 0 % of dogs), and lowered body posture (46 % vs. 8 %) when compared with dogs trained with +R, behaviors that are all associated with stress. Altogether, 65 percent of dogs in the -RS group demonstrated at least one stress-related behavior, compared with only 8 percent of dogs in the +RS group. Conversely, significantly more dogs in the +RS group offered spontaneous gaze to their owners during the sit command when compared with dogs from the -RS group (88 % vs. 33 %), a behavior that is interpreted as an invitation to visually interact and a positive relationship.
  • Walking on a loose lead: Although not statistically significant, more dogs in the -RS demonstrated a lowered body posture while walking when compared with dogs enrolled in the +RS (15 % vs. 4 %). However, reduced body posture while walking was relatively uncommon in both schools. Similar to their response during the sit command, significantly more dogs in the +RS group offered spontaneous gaze to their owner during heeling compared with dogs in the -RS group (63 % vs. 4 %).

Yawning Dog 4 tongue flicks stress               Stress Yawn                        Mouth Licking                           Avoiding Eye Contact  

Butkus Eye ContactOFFERING GAZE

Take away for dog folks: It is important to note this was a preliminary and exploratory study that compared students who were training their dogs at one of two possible schools. This methodology can allow comparison of the behavior of  dogs trained using two sets of training instructions (which is exactly what the researchers did), but  cannot be used to make general conclusions about training schools that use different methods because only one school of each type was studied. Although this may seem to be a minor point, it is an important one that cautions us to take care when interpreting the results of this study. (For a refresher on the need to study groups rather than single entities, see The Steve Series of this blog).  The results of this study suggest that:

  • The emphasis upon negative reinforcement when training dogs to perform basic manners exercises (sit, walk on lead) can cause stress, demonstrated as reduced body posture, tongue flicks, yawning, and avoiding eye contact.
  • Conversely, the emphasis upon positive reinforcement may improve a dog’s confidence and relationship with her owner, as evidenced by offering voluntary eye contact (and by the absence of stress-related behaviors).
  • Perhaps most importantly (and unique to this study design): All of the dogs in this study had been in training for at least several months and were enrolled in an advanced class. Those dogs who were trained using -R were most likely to respond with stress to the owner’s verbal command “sit”. The researchers suggested that the training itself and its attendant commands/cues had become a conditioned aversive stimulus for these dogs. In other words, there were consequences to the type of consequences that were used during training.


Juno and Carrie Default Eye Contact       Jack Russell Terrier lying beside it's accidentCONSIDER THE CONSEQUENCES OF CONSEQUENCES  

References cited:

  1. Canine and Feline Behavior and Training: A Complete Guide to Understanding Our Two Best Friends, LP Case, page 89, Cengage, 2010.
  2. Deldalle S, Gaunet F. Effects of two training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog (Canis familiaris) and on the dog-owner relationship. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research2014; In press. Abstract