The click is not the trick: The efficacy of clickers and other reinforcement methods in training naïve dogs to perform new tasks

Rachel J. Gilchrist, Lisa M. Gunter, Samantha F. Anderson, Clive D.L. Wynne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Background: A handheld metal noisemaker known as a "clicker"is widely used to train new behaviors in dogs; however, evidence for their superior efficacy compared to providing solely primary reinforcement or other secondary reinforcers in the acquisition of novel behavior in dogs is largely anecdotal. Methods: Three experiments were conducted to determine under what circumstances a clicker secondary reinforcer may result in acquisition of a novel behavior more rapidly or to a higher level compared to other readily available reinforcementmethods. In Experiment 1, three groups of 30 dogs each were shaped to emit a novel sit and stay behavior of increasing duration with either the delivery of food alone, a verbal stimulus paired with food, or a clicker with food. The group that received only a primary reinforcer reached a significantly higher criterion of training success than the group trained with a verbal secondary reinforcer. Performance of the group experiencing a clicker as a secondary reinforcer was intermediate between the other two groups, but not significantly different from either. In Experiment 2, three groups of 25 dogs each were shaped to emit a nose targeting behavior and then perform that behavior at increasing distances from the experimenter using the same three methods of positive reinforcement as in Experiment 1. No statistically significant differences between the groups were found. In Experiment 3, three groups of 30 dogs each were shaped to emit a nose-targeting behavior upon an array of wooden blocks with task difficulty increasing throughout testing using the same three methods of positive reinforcement as previously tested. No statistically significant differences between the groups were found. Results: Overall, the findings suggest that both primary reinforcement alone as well as a verbal or clicker secondary reinforcer can be used successfully in training a dog to perform a novel behavior, but that no positive reinforcement method demonstrated significantly greater efficacy than any other.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere10881
JournalPeerJ
Volume9
DOIs
StatePublished - Feb 22 2021

Keywords

  • Behavioral conditioning
  • Clicker training
  • Dogs
  • Reinforcement learning
  • Secondary reinforcer

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)

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