Clicker training for dogs: the right method makes all the difference

Photo: Giulia Cimarelli/Vetmeduni Vienna

Photo: Giulia Cimarelli/Vetmeduni Vienna  1

Clicker training is a popular and effective method of training dogs. However, different trainers apply the technique in different ways. A research team from Vetmeduni Vienna recently investigated whether these differences have implications for the dogs’ emotional state. Their findings show that clicker training with only partial rewarding negatively affects the dogs’ welfare.

Clicker training is a widely used technique to teach novel behaviours to dogs and other animals through the use of positive reinforcement. The basic process is quite simple: whenever the animal exhibits the desired behaviour, the trainer clicks and then delivers a reward. The way trainers apply this technique varies, however. Most trainers follow every click with a reward (e.g. food), while others believe that dogs learn faster when the reward is sometimes withheld. One argument against the use of partial rewarding is that it may induce frustration in the animal. This also raises concerns over the welfare of the dogs.

Partial rewarding affects training efficacy

A team led by researchers from Vetmeduni Vienna investigated the effect of partial rewarding not only on training efficacy (learning speed) but also on the dogs’ emotional state. According to study director Giulia Cimarelli from the Vetmeduni Vienna’s Clever Dog Lab, the findings clearly show that clicker training is best accompanied by continuous rewarding: “Partial rewarding not only does not improve training efficacy, but it is also associated with a negatively valenced affective state.”

Recommended: clicker training with continuous rewarding

The study compared two groups of dogs that were clicker-trained to perform a specific task. One group was rewarded after each click, while the other received a reward only after every three out of five clicks. Based on previous studies suggesting an influencing role of personality on reactions to frustrated expectations in dogs, the researchers included measurements of the dogs’ emotional reactivity in their study design. Cimarelli: “We compared the number of trials needed to reach a learning criterion and symptoms for a negative affective state. Dogs that were only partially rewarded during clicker training showed a more pessimistic bias than dogs that were continuously rewarded. And as partial rewarding does not improve training efficacy, we see continuous rewarding as the recommendable alternative.”

Training programmes should more strongly take into account the individual personalities of dogs

According to the researchers, this is the first study to take into account the potential role of personality in mediating the efficacy and consequences of different training techniques. But for Cimarelli, there is another reason why the study is so important: “Our study provides evidence that dogs are sensitive to even subtle differences in training techniques and that caution should be exercised when designing training programmes for both pet and working dogs. We suggest that future studies take the element of dogs’ individual personalities into account more strongly.”

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