What does Respondent Conditioning Have to Do with Clicker Training?

Why have small cricket boxes found in children’s toy shops been renamed as clickers and infiltrated the dog training arena. What do they do? How do they work? Are they a gimmick or founded in science? Learn about the connection between clicker training and Pavlovian conditioning and how clickers actually work.

 An organism exhibits two types of reflexes, unconditioned reflexes and conditioned reflexes.

  1. An unconditioned reflex (UR) is unlearned and occurs unconditionally,
  2. A conditioned reflex (CR) is acquired and considered impermanent.

 An unconditioned reflex consists of an unconditioned stimulus (US) and an unconditioned response (UR).  An unconditioned stimulus is something that, when presented, evokes a natural unconditioned response  such as blinking when air is pushed towards the eyelid or sweating when stressed or scared. Unconditioned reflexes are important for an animal’s survival.  Freeze dried liver offered to a dog is an example of a US and the dog drooling is an example of the resulting UR.  

 A conditioned reflex occurs when a conditioned stimulus (CS) creates a conditioned response (CR).  This is a learned response to a given set of conditions occurring in the environment.  Pavlov recognized that any stimulus could become a conditioned stimulus when paired repeatedly with an unconditioned stimulus.

 Respondent conditioning takes place when an unconditioned stimulus that elicits an unconditioned response is repeatedly paired with a neutral stimulus. As a result of conditioning, the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus that reliably elicits a conditioned response.  When we first present a clicker to a dog the clicker is a neutral stimulus.  The first thing we do with the clicker is “charge it” by pairing the clicker sound with an unconditioned stimulus, i.e. food. The clicker then becomes an indicator to the dog that a treat is following and thus becomes a conditioned stimulus. The same principle is applied using a whistle with marine animal training.


 With each single pairing of the neutral stimulus, the clicker and the unconditioned stimulus, the food is considered a trial. Using respondent conditioning we can create some very powerful training tools. Once the clicker has been “charged” we can then use it to shape and train some great dog behaviors. However we need to be very precise in our application with this new training tool.

 There are four ways of pairing the unconditioned stimulus (food) and the conditioned stimulus (clicker). The rate of respondent conditioning will vary with the degree of CS – US contingency.  The interval and contiguity between the conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus also affects how quickly conditioning occurs.

 There are four ways of pairing the US and the CS.

1) Trace and 2) delayed conditioning –  Present the conditioned stimulus prior to the unconditioned stimulus. In trace conditioning the conditioned stimulus begins and ends before the unconditioned stimulus is presented.  With delayed conditioning there is an overlap of the conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus.  Delayed conditioning is also affected by the length of delay between the presentation of the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus.  With delayed conditioning, initially both short and long-term delays elicit similar results. However with long delay conditioning the interval between the conditioned stimulus and conditioned responses, known as conditioned response latency, gradually increases. The conditioned stimulus becomes not just the presented stimulus but the appearance of the stimulus for a given length of time.  With both trace and delayed conditioning a conditional response begins to appear after the conditioned stimulus is presented as there is a high degree of CS-US contingency and there is an inter-stimulus interval.


In 3) simultaneous conditioning and 4) backward conditioning the conditioned stimulus is not presented before the unconditioned stimulus but either simultaneously or after the unconditioned stimulus is presented. With simultaneous conditioning the conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus are presented at exactly the same time.  Since there is no interval between the conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus it makes conditioning very ineffective. Backward conditioning presents the unconditioned stimulus before the conditioned stimulus and weakens the contingency between the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus.



One of the most common mistakes people make when training dogs using clickers is the way they present the clicker and the food.  They will often both click and deliver the treat at exactly the same time or they present the food first and then click. This impedes the dog’s learning and frustrates the dog’s owner as they do not see the results they are promised and expect.


When introducing clickers into a dog training class the instructor needs to be very precise about how they describe and demonstrate the use of the clicker.  Because the  amount of learning depends on the degree to which the conditioned stimulus predicts the unconditioned stimulus it is important that for the best results when training dogs the conditioned stimulus (the clicker) is presented before the unconditioned stimulus (the food) and the delay between the presentation of the clicker and the food is as short as possible. The dog trainers’ mechanics need to be exact.


 Clicker training is very powerful and can be used to shape and train many behaviors, it is also the training method of choice when dealing with anxiety or fear elicited behaviors as shaping is the least intrusive and least aversive training method available. However clicker training is very misunderstood and often misused or incorrectly applied. To get the best results from your clicker training experience consult a certified dog trainer or behavior analyst so you start on the right foot and really understand how to use this simple yet often misrepresented training tool.


One Response

  1. Lots of Good information in your posting, I bookmarked your blog post so I can visit again in the near future, Thanks, Allena Harthun

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