To Click or Not to Click: The Role of the Marker Signal in Shaping Behavior, by Lynn Loar, Ph.D., LCSW
(Reprinted from the ADPT Newsletter of Nov/Dec 2000)

Among dog trainers and other animal behaviorists, one often hears the phrase "clicker training without the clicker." What people mean is that they use positive reinforcement primarily if not exclusively, and probably use the word "yes" or "good" in place of the click or some other artificial sound to signal approval.

As a result of the use of language instead of an artificial sound, progress is less than it might be for both animal and human learners. The reliance on spoken language with its lack of precision in pinpointing incremental behavioral gains not only reduces learning but represents the failure of the trainer to establish true empathy with the learner.

It is hard for animals to sort out spoken language. Domesticated animals hear speech around them all the time, little of it directed at them,and less of it intelligible without the expenditure of great effort. Wild animals rarely hear language at all. Animals' hearing is focused on sounds of predators and prey and auditory indicators of safety and danger. Recognizing the speech sounds directed at them and figuring out what the sounds mean take considerable work, more than learning the behaviors the commands are intended to trigger.

Verbal commands often create obstacles for people too. Few people (3% of the population) are auditory learners. Children learn enormous repertoires of behaviors before they can produce language. Sequencing and retaining spoken information come much later in childhood. Children with any of the many common learning disabilities often have difficulty following verbal directions. People who had harsh parents or teachers may also respond poorly to instructions given aloud, reacting affectively with recollections of past insults or humiliations rather than focusing on the task at hand.

Thus, while omitting the clicker may be convenient for the trainer who now has a free hand, it makes the learner deal from weakness rather than strength, from confusion rather than clarity. The trainer may be equally positive and benign while clicking or saying "yes" but the learner is clear in one situation and working at a considerable disadvantage in the other.

The marker signal provides a precise staccato indicator as the desired behavior occurs. Its sound carries clearly and distinctly above the surrounding din of verbiage. The brevity and specificity of communication with the marker signal cannot be equaled conversationally. Moreover, because the sound is extraordinary it has a significant impact on both the learner and the trainer. Both participants are reinforced by the click, the learner for the act and the trainer for the well-timed click.

Hearing "yes" or "good," the learner knows he pleased the trainer. Hearing a click, he knows he got the behavior right. Vague praise, while nice, is not as useful for learning as the specific targeting of achievement.

The click stresses the learner's role as the "behaver" rather than the trainer's role as the giver of praise. Thus, the relationship becomes more egalitarian, with both the learner and trainer trying to get the behavior and the communication right. The click reinforces the efforts and precision of both participants. The resulting shared experience builds a collegial rapport that transcends age, language and species.

Perfect timing is required for efficient shaping of behavior with a marker signal. To achieve this, the trainer must:
  • be totally focused on and attentive to the learner's effort;
  • understand of the behavior being shaped;
  • understand the dog's level of frustration.
A good trainer can anticipate possible misconstructions and streamline shaping so that the learner's energy is directed toward the goal with little effort wasted on irrelevant actions. The ability to anticipate the likely conceptualization of the learner,the desire to work swiftly to conserve the learner's energy, buoy enthusiasm, and encourage learning represent empathy. Clicking frequently constitutes altruism as well as guidance.

The click works better for the learner because of the learner's innate auditory limitations and the click's clarity of communication. The click works better for the trainer because of the concentration and precision it requires of the trainer. The click works better for the relationship of the trainer and learner because it reinforces both of them, reduces the power differential between them, and increases the collaboration and enjoyment of a shared experience.

Clicker training without the clicker compromises achievement; clicker training with the clicker maximizes learning. Click!

(Copyright, Association of Pet Dog Trainers, 2000. Used with permission. The Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) was founded in 1993 by Dr. Ian Dunbar an an organization for pet dog trainers to become better trainers through education. The APDT now includes over 3,000 members worldwide, including world-renowned trainers, certified animal behaviorists, humane society personnel, service dog trainers, and veterinarians. For information about how to find an APDT trainer, please call 1-800-PET-DOGS, or visit their Web site at )

Lynn Loar, Ph.D., LCSW, is a social worker who teaches at-risk families to clicker train dogs as part of abuse prevention treatment. She is the president of the Pryor Foundation, an organization devoted to promoting the study and applications of marker-based shaping (clicker training) to influence human and non-human animal behavior.