“My method is scientific” 3: The trouble with clicker training

Clicker training, sometimes called marker training, is all the rage. I use it with Milo all the time. Linda Case, over at The Science Dog, points out that even though clicker training is based on scientific theory, is incredibly popular, and has a track record of success

…there is surprising little published research regarding its application to dog training. … 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.


So, how do we explain, and what do we do about, this conflict between the scientific evidence and the practical success of using clicker training with dogs? Case examines a scientific paper by Lynna Feng et al. that does an excellent job sorting out this problem. The paper’s title says it all: Comparing trainers’ reports of clicker use to the use of clickers in applied research studies: methodological differences may explain conflicting results.

In her analysis of this paper, Case writes that

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.

Remember that saying that a training method is scientific means that there is a body of peer-reviewed, publicly available, scientific evidence demonstrating that the method they are referring to meets their training goals better than alternative methods.

Case’s and Feng’s discussion of the science of clicker training shows that there was a mismatch between the research testing the application of this method to dog training, and what the trainers using this method actually do. In other words, the evidence was not referring to the actual method in question.

Scientific experiments often look at what they are studying in a strictly controlled way, and sometimes they look at a part of a training method instead of the whole thing. On the one hand, this is good because it helps researchers figure out precisely what is going on. On the other hand, it means that we need to use our judgement when applying scientific research to real-world situations.

When looking for scientific support for a dog training method, consider how closely the scientific evidence refers to what you are actually doing.

Two things stand out about this research on clicker training. 

First, Feng’s research sorting out this conflict is an example of science working just the way it should. The public availability of the scientific research on clicker training dogs allowed scholars like Feng and Case to evaluate the science and offer suggestions for making it better.

Second, I really like Feng’s study because she treats the expert dog trainers’ knowledge with respect. There are lots of different kinds of experts. Scientists are one kind of expert and people who have successfully trained lots of dogs are another kind of expert. Sometimes, but not very often, a person has both of these kinds of expertise. Most of the time though, scientific and practical experts need to work together.


Note: This is the third post in a five-part series about what makes a dog training method scientific.

  1. “My method is scientific” 1: “That’s right, I said ‘SCIENTIFIC’!”
  2. “My method is scientific” 2: What does this even mean?
  3. “My method is scientific” 3: The trouble with clicker training
  4. “My Method is scientific” 4: Science, goodness, and goals
  5. “My method is scientific” 5: Responsible use of science

2 thoughts on ““My method is scientific” 3: The trouble with clicker training

  1. I’ve been following this blog with fascination, Carla, even though I have never thought about dog training before. What you say here is such a wonderful example of the limitations of the epistemology of laboratory science, which relies on decontextualizing (“isolating”) what are taken to be the essential, causality efficacious properties of the object of study. Such an approach has led to lots of important knowledge, but, as you so clearly explain, it has serious limitations. Thanks!


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