Clicker training

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Clicker-training a dog.

Clicker training is a method for training animals that uses positive reinforcement such as a food treat, along with a clicker or small mechanical noisemaker to mark the behavior being reinforced. When training a new behavior, the clicker helps the animal to quickly identify the precise behavior that results in the treat. The technique is popular with dog trainers, but can be used for all kinds of domestic and wild animals.[1]

Sometimes instead of a click to mark the desired behavior, other distinctive sounds are made (such as "whistle, a cluck of the tongue, a snap of the fingers, or even a word")[2] or visual or other sensory cues (such as a flashlight, hand sign, or vibrating collar),[3] especially helpful for deaf animals.


B. F. Skinner first identified and described the principles of operant conditioning that are used in clicker training.[4][5] Two students of Skinner's, Marian Kruse and Keller Breland, worked with him researching pigeon behavior and training projects during World War II, when pigeons were taught to "bowl" (push a ball with their beaks).[6] They believed that traditional animal training was being needlessly hindered because methods of praise and reward then in use did not inform the animal of success with enough promptness and precision to create the required cognitive connections for speedy learning. They saw the potential for using the operation conditioning method in commercial animal training.[7] The two later married and in 1947 created Animal Behavior Enterprises (ABE), "the first commercial animal training business to intentionally and systematically incorporate the principles of behavior analysis and operant conditioning into animal training."[8]

The Brelands coined the term "bridging stimulus" in the 1940s to refer to the function of a secondary reinforcer such as a whistle or click.[9] ABE continued operations until 1990, with the assistance of Bob Bailey after Keller Breland died in 1965. They report having trained over 15,000 animals and over 150 species during their time in operation.[10]

Although the Brelands tried to promote clicker training for dogs in the 1940s and 1950s, the method failed to catch on until the late 1980s and early 1990s.[11] In the early 1990s, Karen Pryor and Gary Wilkes started giving clicker training seminars to dog owners; the first was given in San Franscisco in 1992.[12] In 1998, Alexandra Kurland published "Clicker Training For Your Horse."[13] In the 21st century, training books began to appear for other companion animals, such as cats, birds, and rabbits.[14]


The first step in clicker training is teaching the animal to associate the clicker sound (or other chosen marker such as a whistle)[15] with a treat. Every time the click sounds, a treat is offered immediately.

Next the click is used to signal that a desired behavior has happened. Some approaches[16] are:

  • catching: catching the animal in the act of doing something that is desired, for example sitting or lying down. Eventually the animal learns to repeat the behavior for a treat.
  • shaping: gradually building a new behavior by rewarding each small steps toward it.
  • luring: using the treat like a magnet to get the animal to move toward the desired position.

Once the behavior is learned, the final step is to add a cue for the behavior, such as a word or a hand signal.[17] The animal will have learned that a treat is on the way after completing the desired behavior.


Training wild animals in captivity for entertainment purposes[edit]

The fact that we can train an animal effectively using clicker training does not necessarily mean that it is ethical to do so. There is increasing concern about the welfare of marine mammals and other wild animals in captivity, trained for entertainment purposes.[18] Wild animals can on occasion harm and even kill their trainers.[19] Trainers respond that the method works without using fear or force, and that we have much to learn from these magnificent animals.[20] Some organizations are working to end the training of captive wild animals for entertainment purposes.[21]

Military use of trained animals[edit]

The use of clicker training of animals for military purposes can also raise ethical concerns. The U.S. Navy has trained dolphins, sea lions, and dogs[22] as well as pigeons and chickens for military purposes.[23] One writer asks whether it is right for us to capture and train wild animals, and then put them in dangerous situations for military purposes?[24] Animals can suffer from their use as weapons, tools of surveillance, and as casualties of war; highlighting the need for humane alternatives.[25]

Questions about the method itself[edit]

Other concerns focus on the method of clicker training itself. One trainer who objects to the method says that it is based on a limited view of animal behavior, and does not deal well with issues like animals with a history of abuse.[26] Animal trainers assert that clicker training has proven effectiveness and scientific research to back it. Further, clicker training does not exclude using other methods as part of a full toolbox of animal training resources.[27] The method can also be modified to a specific animal's needs. For instance, if an animal is sensitive to noise or frightened by a clicker, a different type of marker can be used.[28]

Some people question whether the animal will become dependent on the clicker and forget the learned behavior when the clicker is not to hand. However, the clicker is a training aid only, and its use is discontinued once the animal has reliably learned the behavior,[29] when the clicker is replaced by a different cue or command.[30]

Some people ask whether the use of treats in training will cause the animal to gain too much weight. However, good trainers are careful about managing the animal's healthy weight, being careful about treat selections and using part of the animal's daily meal for training.[31] Many trained animals compete in agility sports and other activities, showing that they are in excellent physical condition.[32]

People not using the method effectively might complain that it is not working. Experienced trainers point out that "you get what you click for," noting that if the clicker is used willy nilly the training becomes meaningless.[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Clicker Training Your Pet", ASPCA, accessed July 28, 2014.
  2. ^ "5 Clicker Training Myths", Wag the Dog, accessed July 29, 2014.
  3. ^ "Clicker Training for Deaf Dogs", Deaf Dog Education Action Fund, accessed July 29, 2014.
  4. ^ Skinner, B.F. (1951). How to teach animals. Scientific American, 185, 26-29.
  5. ^ Skinner, B.F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  6. ^ Peterson, G. (2000). The Discovery of Shaping or B.F. Skinner’s Big Surprise. The Clicker Journal: The Magazine for Animal Trainers, 43, 6-13.
  7. ^ Bailey and Gillaspy, Operant Conditioning Goes to the Fair,The Behavior Analyst 2005, pp 143-159.
  8. ^ "Animal Behavior Enterprises", History of Behaviour Analysis, accessed July 28, 2014.
  9. ^ Ibid.
  10. ^ Ibid.
  11. ^ "Modern Training and Clicker Training for Pet Owners", History of Behaviour Analysis, accessed July 28, 2014.
  12. ^ Ibid.
  13. ^ Ibid. and Kurland, Alexandra, "Clicker Training for Your Horse" (2004 edition, Ringpress Books), ISBN 1-86054-292-1.
  14. ^ See "Further Reading" below.
  15. ^ "5 Clicker Training Myths", Wag the Dog, accessed July 29, 2014.
  16. ^ "Clicker Training Your Pet", ASPCA, accessed July 28, 2014.
  17. ^ Ibid.
  18. ^ "Ethics Guide", BBC, accessed July 30, 2014, lists various issues of concern; for example of one protest, "Captive cetaceans at Vancouver Aquarium not going anywhere after parks board meeting nets no resolution", Cheryl Chan, The Province, July 29, 2014.
  19. ^ For example, "Killer whale kills SeaWorld trainer: Whale involved in death of B.C. trainer in 1991", CBC News, Feb 24, 2010.
  20. ^ "What Sea World Has Taught Us", Karen Pryor Clicker Training, 2/25/2010.
  21. ^ For example, "Performing Animals", Zoocheck, accessed July 30, 2014 and "Frequently asked questions for captivity", Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), accessed July 30, 2014.
  22. ^ "Harnessing the military power of animal intelligence", Kaj Larsen, CNN, Aug. 3, 2011.
  23. ^ "Service Animals - Military Service", Library Index, accessed July 30, 2014.
  24. ^ "US Navy Seals? How About Navy Sea Lions?", Samantha Ellis,, May 25, 2011.
  25. ^ Anthony J. Nocella II, ed. et al., "Animals and War: Confronting the Military-Animal Industrial Complex" (2013, Lexington Books), ISBN 978-0739186510.
  26. ^ "Why I don't believe in clicker training", Sam Basso,, accessed July 29, 2014.
  27. ^ "5 Clicker Training Myths", Wag the Dog, accessed July 29, 2014.
  28. ^ Alexander, Melissa. Click for Joy. Waltham, MA: Sunshine Books, 2003, p. 24
  29. ^ "Clicker Training for Dogs", Pets4Homes, accessed July 30, 2014.
  30. ^ Alexander, Melissa. Click for Joy. Waltham, MA: Sunshine Books, 2003, p. 97.
  31. ^ "Clicker Training Myth-Busting", Casey Lomonaco, Dogster, Jan 26, 2011.
  32. ^ Ibid., and "Feline Agility Competition", The Cat Fanciers Association, Inc., accessed July 30, 2014.
  33. ^ "On Shoddy Clicker Training and the Importance of Premack", Casey Lomonaco, Dog Star Daily, 10/11/2009.

Further reading[edit]

  • Alexander, Melissa C., "Click for Joy: Questions and Answers from Clicker Trainers and Their Dogs" (2003, Sunshine Books), ISBN 978-1890948122.
  • Castro, A. (2007): The bird school - Clicker training for parrots and other birds. ISBN 978-3-939770-03-9.
  • Johnson, Melinda, "Getting Started: Clicker Training for Birds" (2003, Sunshine Books), ISBN 978-1890948153.
  • Kurland, Alexandra, "Clicker Training for Your Horse" (2004, Ringpress Books), ISBN 1-86054-292-1.
  • Orr, Joan and Teresa Lewin, "Getting Started: Clicking With Your Rabbit" (2006, Sunshine Books), ISBN 978-1890948238.
  • Pryor, Karen "Getting Started: Clicker Training for Cats" (2012, Karen Pryor Clickertraining), ISBN 978-1-890948-14-6 (Kindle edition).
  • Pryor, Karen, "Getting Started: Clicker Training for Dogs" (2004, Interpet Publishing), ISBN 1-86054-282-4. Kindle edition ISBN 978-1-980948-21-4.
  • Pryor, Karen, "Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us About All Animals" (2010, Scribner), ISBN 978-0743297776.
  • Spector, Morgan, "Clicker Training for Obedience" (1999, Sunshine Books), ISBN 978-0962401787.

External links[edit]