The History of Clicker Training

Mary Burch is the Director of AKC's Canine Good Citizen Program. She is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and an experienced dog trainer.

Most modern dog trainers can name several people who popularized the use of clickers in dog training.

But do you know about the history of clicker training? In 1951, B.F. Skinner published an article in Scientific American entitled, "How to Teach Animals." In this article, the behavioral term "shaping" was used for the very first time. 

When the article came out, Skinner was contacted by Look magazine. He was interviewed and agreed to do a training challenge with a Dalmatian named Agnes (registered with AKC as "Roadcoach Cheerful").  Instead of a clicker, in the demo, the photographer's strobe light was used as the conditioned reinforcer.  Within 20 minutes, Skinner and Agnes successfully showed the Look reporters the mighty power of positive reinforcement (cubes of beef) as Agnes was trained to run up a wall.

The article in Look magazine (which was one of the most widely circulated magazines of its time), brought Skinner's name and operant conditioning to the public on a big scale.

However, there are documented examples of clicker training prior to 1951. In 1943, Skinner and grad students Keller Breland and Norman Guttman used clicker training to teach a pigeon to bowl using a tiny bowling ball and pins.

In 1946, Edwin Guthrie & G. P. Horton used the click of a camera to teach a cat to push a pole. And while the cat got all the attention in the title of the article describing their work ("Cats in a Puzzle Box"), they also used a clicker to train a dog.

As it turns out, clickers have been around longer than most of today's dog trainers.