This is the number one criticism of clicker training I hear.  Owners want to know, “why can’t I just say good dog?” or “I’m not coordinated enough to use the clicker, can’t I use my voice instead?”  Good questions.  I have good answers, too. 

Praise vs Verbal Marker

First you must understand the difference between praise (“gooood puppit! who’s the perfect poochie? you are!”) and an event marker (click, “yes,” or “good”).  Praise, though a low-value reward for most dogs, is a reward, not a reward-marker.  It takes a long time to spit out and doesn’t convey much information other than the mama is pleased.  An event-marker, like a one-syllable word, a click, or a whistle, that has been classically conditioned to be a secondary reinforcer for the dog, gives the dog information (yes! that was it, you did it right just then) and is utilized in good animal training to communicate to the dog what is earning them the primary reinforcer (the food in most cases) so that they can try that behavior again in the future.  People struggle with drawing the line between a statement of praise (goood boy!) and a conditioned secondary reinforcer one-syllable word that never changes (yes or good).  People do not struggle so much with the difference between praise and a neutral sound like a click. 

Amygdala vs Cortex

Even if folks training dogs can learn to distinguish between praise and one-syllable event-markers, (in which case the dogs do learn, and well) the clicker is quicker, every time. It has been set up on more than one occasion and timed–we know clicker training a behavior is at least 40% faster and sometimes even 100% faster than using a verbal marker, every time, no matter the species–and that’s when the verbal marker training is done really well, by the same scientist doing the clicker training.  We also know that clicker training retains better–the dogs remember what they learned for years to come, even if they never perform that behavior again–not so with verbal marker training.  So we know that happens, but why?  The answer lies in neuroscience (of course!).  Consider the cortex, the high-functioning part of the brain that deals with stuff like problem-solving and processing.  This part of the brain is most certainly involved in learning, but so is the amygdala, the so-called lizard brain that deals with knee-jerk reactions to fear, excitement, and other sorts of primal innate feelings.  The amygdala is what causes you to slam your foot down on the brakes when a dog runs in front of your car before you even realize it.  The cortex is what then makes you think of all the ways it could have been bad had you hit the dog, after the fact.  If we processed only with our cortex in such situations, we would not be able to stop the car in time, it is the amygdala that makes our body do things out of reaction, not thought.  Come to find out, the amygdala is also where classical conditioning happens.  You learn that snakes are scary after being struck at by a rattlesnake on the trail.  Snakes are now all frightening to you, no matter how harmless they may actually be, because your amygdala controls your fear.  When you say “yes” or “good” or even praise your dog “good puppy!” your dog has to process that information in the cortex, where language happens.  When you click, that sound goes straight to the amygdala, causing the dog to have an immediate response to the sound.  This is why the dogs learn faster (no muddy processing), why the information is clearer (think about how clearly you feel fear when you almost hit a deer on the highway and how quickly you react because of that clear information), and why the dogs remember what they learned so very well (will you ever forget that snakes=fear? Not even if you go through therapy to overcome that fear–you might not be phobic anymore, but you won’t forget).  The answers to everything lie right there in that simple science of processing–the click goes through the amygdala and the words go through the cortex.  The cortex muddies understanding and slows things down.  The amygdala gives fast, clear information that is not only easily retained but almost impossible to forget.

Human Speed and Accuracy

For all the people out there training dogs who think they just can’t clicker train because it takes coordination, I have some news.  All dog training takes coordination.  It’s a mechanical skill that takes practice.  No one said teaching your fingers to play the guitar would be easy, and the same goes for clicker training (though it is much easier than guitar).  The other good news is that your timing with the clicker will always be better than your voice.  Karen Pryor writes of an exercise anyone can try; have a friend bounce a ball for you and click every single time the ball hits the ground.  You will get good at catching that precise moment, and you will know when you have missed.  This is the fundamental difference! If you are trying to use your voice for the same exercise not only will your timing be off every time, but you won’t realize it.  Something about your mental processing tells you that you got it right, but video will show you that you are off by a beat or two.  Makes me wonder if even the excellent verbal marker training isn’t just slowed down by processing, but by the timing of the marker as well.  Meanwhile, if you are clicking the ball hitting the ground your timing will get so precise that no matter of varying the time it takes for the ball to reach the ground will be able to throw you off–all in a matter of minutes!  Doesn’t seem so tough to me.