Is the Clicker “Quicker” (Than a Verbal Marker)?

At least one psychologist's research indicates the answer is, "Yes." Psychologist Lindsey Wood based her Master's thesis on a study comparing the rate of acquisition...


At least one psychologist’s research indicates the answer is, “Yes.” Psychologist Lindsey Wood based her Master’s thesis on a study comparing the rate of acquisition for behaviors taught with a verbal marker versus a clicker.

You can view Wood’s entire thesis online, Clicker Bridging Stimulus Efficacy. Interestingly, and not surprising to those of us who are clicker trainers, Wood’s research indicated that:

There was a decrease of over 1/3 in training time and number of required reinforcements for the clicker as compared to the verbal condition group. The clicker trained dogs achieved behavior acquisition in significantly (p < .05) fewer minutes and required significantly fewer primary reinforcements than verbal condition dogs. The difference in effectiveness of the two bridging stimuli was most apparent at the onset of each new task component. It appears that use of the clicker, by providing a more precise marker than a verbal bridging stimulus, is responsible for superior acquisition of complex behaviors such as that studied here. The facilitation of learning provided by the clicker bridging stimulus has important implications for animal training, especially when professionals are confronted with time constraints. The potential of the clicker stimulus to improve animal learning throughout the entire process of a behavior may not only increase the rate of behavior acquisition, but also reduce animal frustration and further enhance the relationship between trainer and animal.

Woods’ research also demonstrated that while the clicker speeds the acquisition of new behavior in a naive learner, a clicker and verbal marker worked equally well to maintain an already known behavior. One concept that many pet owners (and many trainers, too) fail to understand is that the clicker is a teaching tool – once the behavior is learned, it is appropriate and recommended that the handler replace the clicker with a verbal marker.

Woods’ research showed that…

Dogs trained with a clicker learned the targeting behavior in an average time of 36 minutes.

Dogs trained with a verbal marker learned the targeting behavior in an average time of 59 minutes.

The clicker trained dogs required an average of 83 food reinforcements to complete the exercise.

The dogs taught with a verbal marker required an average of 126 primary reinforcements to complete the exercise.

In the initial stage of training, verbally marked dogs required nearly twice as many reinforcements to achieve the same level of performance as their clicker trained counterparts. Wood’s findings “suggests the clicker not only facilitates learning of a novel behavior as a whole, but also of each new task component within that novel behavior.”
So is the “clicker” quicker? Wood’s research indicates that the answer is yes. I hope her work inspires further research on the topic. If you’d like to learn more about the clicker and its effect on rates of learning, check out Karen Pryor’s most recent book, Reaching the Animal Mind.

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