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Amygdala: the Neurophysiology of Clicker Training

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By Karen Pryor

I gave a talk to the Association of Pet Dog Trainers about advances in clicker training, in which I discussed the possible relationship between clicking and the amygdala, a structure in the limbic system or oldest part of the brain. Many people have emailed me to find out more, so I thought I would give you a recap and an update.

German scientist Barbara Schoening is a clicker trainer and a veterinary neurophysiologist in private practice. It was she who drew my attention to the relationship between clicker training and research on stimuli and the limbic system. The paper that Barbara Schoening and I are working on is an hypothesis paper only, putting forth our concept.

Research in neurophysiology has identified the kinds of stimuli—bright lights, sudden sharp sounds—that reach the amygdala first, before reaching the cortex or thinking part of the brain. The click is that kind of stimulus. Other research, on conditioned fear responses in humans, shows that these also are established via the amygdala, and are characterized by a pattern of very rapid learning, often on a single trial, long-term retention, and a big surge of concommitant emotions. The New York Times Sunday Magazine ran a cover story surveying this research in 1999.

We clicker trainers see similar patterns of very rapid learning, long retention, and emotional surges, albeit positive emotions rather than fear. Barbara and I hypothesize that the clicker is a conditioned 'joy' stimulus that is acquired and recognized through those same primitive pathways, which would help explain why it is so very different from, say, a human word, in its effect.

If this is true, another contributing factor to the extraordinary rapidity with which the clicker and clicked behavior can be acquired might be that the click is processed by the CNS much faster than any word can be. Even in the most highly-trained animal or verbal person, the word must be recognized, and interpreted, before it can 'work;' and the effect of the word may be confounded by accompanying emotional signals, speaker identification clues, and other such built-in information.

That is the hypothesis, based on various previously unconnected bodies of research; it is not data or evidence. Dr. Schoening and I have both put the hypothesis forward at scientific meetings and at lay meetings like APDT and IMATA (Int. Marine Animal Trainers Assoc.) in order a) to see if others find this interesting and likely and b) to possibly stimulate others into doing some research. Both lay and scientific audiences have reacted with interest and curiosity.

We have not yet submitted a joint paper for publication, mostly because we are both very busy. When we do, from submittal to publication in a scientific journal takes, usually, at least a year, though things are a bit faster on the Internet these days. Actual research would come next. Poking around in the brain is not what I know how to do; Barbara might. I would say that hard data is five years away, after someone gets interested enough, in some lab, to start looking at the question.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of simpler pieces of field work that various people are undertaking. For example, some clicker instructors have done informal comparisons between using the voice "Yes" as a marker, in some pet owner classes, vs. the clicker in others. Empirically, the outcome is usually that the class curriculum is covered in much less time, with a higher degree of success, in the clicker class. The difference is apparent because it leaves the teacher with two or three weeks at the end of a six or eight week course and nothing left in the teaching plan! (People usually go on to tricks, introduce agility, or move into their intermediate curriculum, to fill up the weeks students have paid for.)

It would be interesting, though not necessarily easy, to analyze such comparative situations, if only to show that the difference is real (if it is.) What causes the difference is another question: the dogs perhaps learn faster and more accurately, but the people also get feedback from the clicker. It increases their attentiveness to the dog, improves their timing, and for all we know, triggers nice feelings in their amygdalas.

There many additional possible neurological and biochemical side effects of clicking. Here’s a comment from Pat Robards, clicker trainer and editor of Dogtalk Magazine in Australia:

Any time a dog receives a treat, it causes the animal's other autonomic system to kick in: the parasympathetic nervous system. (PNS) This section of the nervous system is sometimes called the vegetative function of the organism (processing foods, digestion, etc.).

Humans experience episodes in which the PNS is active as nice warm feelings, relaxation, contentment. Anytime that a previously neutral stimulus, like a clicker, or a kind word, gets paired with one of these parasympathetic reactions, through Classical (Respondent conditioning) the clicker acquires the ability to produce the same pleasant effects. This is why treats (and soon the clicker) can be used to calm a dog, make him less fearful, cause the whole training process to be a happy experience. One of the reasons clicker training is at the cutting edge! I use it to mark Calming Signals for a fearful dog thanks to Karen Pryor.

So, yes, clicker is better. Why? Hmm. We are just beginning to know what questions to ask.
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