Psychology Students at Mount Union Use Clicker Training at Friends of the Pound

May 08, 2010

A group of psychology students at Mount Union are using clicker training, a technique learned in class, to modify dogs’ behaviors at Friends of the Pound in Canton, OH.

Clicker training, a form of operant conditioning, is used to reinforce positive behavior and modify behavior.

Dr. Melissa Muller, assistant professor of psychology, whose class is performing this training at the pound, explained that the “clicker” is a small plastic box that makes a clicking sound when pushed and released. When food is paired with the clicking sound several times, the dog learns that the click acts as a cue that predicts the eventual presentation of food. “Essentially, the clicker serves as a reinforcer,” Muller added. “The sound will eventually serve for the dog as an immediate bridge between a behavior and a reward.”

A dog tends to repeat an action that has a positive consequence (reward) and tends not to repeat one that has a negative consequence. The trainer will create the click sound immediately after the dog performs a desired behavior such as sitting or lying down. Therefore, after consistent practice and training, when the dog hears the sound, it will automatically know that it will receive a reward.


“The click is associated with food or a reward,” said Muller. “This type of training can also be used with other pets, children with autism or others with behavioral problems. It’s an effective way to communicate with them.”

“I will admit that when I first heard about clicker training, I did not think that it could be that productive,” said Kelsey Lancy, a senior psychology major from Macedonia, OH. “I was very skeptical of how effective clicker training could be. Fortunately, once I began to understand how animals think and react, I began to realize that clicker training could be extremely effective. Animals cannot understand our language. It’s not like you can explain to a dog that they are not providing a behavior you are looking for. Additionally, voice inflections change during commands and trainers’ moods can change as well, which could be detrimental to a training session since the animal is not being subjected to a constant command. With the use of a clicker, you are providing a constant form of reinforcement, and thus the animals better understand what they need to do in order to be rewarded.”

“I wanted to teach a class that would speed up the students’ learning,” added Muller. “I think the students enjoyed it.”

“I never would have imagined that I would learn as much as I did, nor did I know that I would be able to apply my education to various aspects of my life,” explained Lancy. “As a student, you often take a class without ever really understanding that some of the things you are learning can be applied to things that are larger than you. My experience has showed me that the education I have encountered here is very applicable to my life and the lives of others.”

Muller admitted that there are certain types of dogs that have a harder time getting adopted. “I wanted my students to work with them,” she said. “My idea behind it was that the students would work with these dogs to modify their behavior. The more the dogs are worked with, the less they would be afraid of people and the more likely they would be to get adopted.”

Similar techniques such as target training are used at zoos. Muller took her psychology class this semester to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo to give them the opportunity to see professional trainers use positive reinforcement to train animals.

 “We were given an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in order to witness how their animals are trained,” explained Lancy. “I never thought that I would have the opportunity to come face-to-face with a giraffe, to touch a hippo’s mouth, or to watch as a zookeeper used clicker training to get a rhino to lie down.”

Lancy felt this class and project was very valuable and has high hopes that it will be beneficial to her after graduation.

“I can apply what I've learned in this course to various aspects of my life. For example, the practice of reinforcement and punishment can be applied to teaching, parenting, coaching, romantic relationships, the workplace and much more. If a person understands that positive reinforcement, providing an appealing reward, is more effective than punishment, then he or she will be able to change behavior more effectively. So in the future, whether I am coaching, teaching, managing, or parenting, I will know that I will see changes in behavior in another if I positively reinforce the behavior I want, rather than punishing the behavior I do not want.”

Her career goal is to become a marriage and family therapist. “I am going to have to be able to work with clients in order to help them modify their behavior,” she added. “This course has already given me some of the skills that I will need in order to alter behavior. Thus, this course has directly influenced and possibly enhanced my future career.”

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