A Better Way to Teach Complex Skills, Borrowed From…Doggy Training?

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My daughter will often practice the piano by herself, but lately, I’ve been sitting down with her and trying to be her practice buddy. Essentially, to make sure she doesn’t make the same mistakes repeatedly and develop bad habits.

Of course, despite my best intentions, this basically means that I can’t help but pounce on every missed note or rhythmic detail that seems to be going past her radar unnoticed. I might start with a gentle “nope” at first, but it quickly escalating to a firm “no!”, followed by a “hold it!!”, “stop!!!”, and eventually a “HEY! LOOK AT THE SCORE!”. 

All of which she finds rather upsetting, and makes her want to avoid practicing. And I can’t blame her, because who wants to hear “no!” all of the time? 

Meanwhile, our dog “DJ” seems to looove “practicing.” He can barely contain himself when my daughter works with him on a new trick (his latest one, “sit pretty” is the one you see above).

Why is there such a difference?

(When I asked, my daughter retorted “treats.”)

And sure, that might be part of it, but when you step back and take a look at the learning process I use with my daughter and that which she uses with our dog, there’s actually quite a big difference between the two approaches. While I seem to be focused on all the times she gets something wrong, she is focused on all the times DJ gets something right. 

So…err…is it possible that she is using a more effective learning strategy with our dog, than I am with her?

“Clicker” training

Some dog trainers swear by a technique known as “clicker” training, which is essentially a form of operant conditioning – a learning method that goes all the way back to the 1900’s. 

The gist of operant learning is that we are more likely to repeat a behavior if something good happens after we do it. 

So when our dog hears us say “sit pretty,” and then jumps up, lays on the ground, barks, runs to grab a toy – and suddenly gets a treat when he accidentally sits back on his hind legs with his paws up like a chipmunk, his little doggy brain starts to learn that there might be a connection between “sit pretty,” sitting with his paws up, and his yummy treat. 

It’d be easier if we could simply explain to him how to sit back, balance his body, and lift his paws up, but since we can’t, he just explores a range of behaviors, until he finds the one that leads to a treat. And over time, he starts to learn that when we say “sit pretty” it means we want him to sit up like a chipmunk. 

This is essentially how clicker training works, except that you use a clicking sound instead of a treat, so that you can more precisely “highlight” the desired behavior at the exact moment the dog does it. 

So in other words, instead of highlighting all of the mistakes a learner makes with a emotionally-charged “no!”, this method allows the learner to explore a little more freely, until you catch the learner in the act of performing the desired behavior. 

Interesting…but does this work for humans?

Med school

This was recently tested out in a medical setting, where 23 med students and surgical residents were recruited to see how this learning method might compare with a more conventional approach.

Half of the participants1 were assigned to the clicker training group, while the other half2 comprised the control group. 

Each learner was given the same task – learn how to tie a variant of the ''Tennessee Slider'' knot.

The control group

Participants in the control group began by watching the instructor demonstrate the skill twice, along with some verbal instructions. 

Then, they were given a diagram illustrating how to tie the knot, and 15 minutes to learn the new skill.

After completing the 15-minute learning phase, each learner was given 15 minutes of practice time (the idea being, to get in ~100 repetitions before the final test). 

The clicker group

The clicker group also watched a demonstration to start with – but then the instructor walked the learner through a script, in which the skill was broken down into 6 steps.

For each step, the learner would receive

  • instructions (“The goal is to wrap the long end of the rope around your right palm and then hold it with a “fakey” pinch)
  • a demonstration of that step
  • and a “tag” point (a phrase, like “fakey pinch”, that served as a reminder of the essential part of the skill that would be marked by the clicker sound if they succeeded in executing it correctly)

Then, the learner would try to perform that subskill until they heard a click (or a short, emotionally-neutral “good”), signifying that they just did it correctly. Once they achieved a click, they would do 5 more repetitions to reinforce the skill before moving on to the next step in the sequence. 

And when each of the 6 subskills had been successful learned, they were linked together to ensure that the learner could successfully perform the knot-tying procedure from beginning to end. 

All followed by 15 minutes of practice, just like the control group.

A test

To determine how effectively the skill was learned, each learner finished with a test of their knot-tying skills, where they were asked to tie the knot 10 times, while their instructor observed and evaluated the precision of their technique. 

The results

All 12 participants in the clicker group passed the test with flying colors, successfully tying 10 knots with proper technique. 

The learners in the control group on the other hand, struggled. Only 4 of the 11 participants managed to tie 10 knots with proper technique. 

Different rates of learning

Although the clicker group seemed to learn and perform the skill with greater precision, there was a downside of sorts – time.

It may not be a hugely significant downside (and might actually be indicative of a deeper learning process), but it took participants in the clicker group 1-2 minutes longer on average to progress from their first instruction to successfully tying their first knot (342 seconds vs. 279 seconds3). 

One last interesting tidbit

One of the participants in the control group failed to figure out how to tie the knot in the allotted 15 minutes. So after the test, the learner sat with the instructor, and using the operant learning method, successfully tied the knot in 201 seconds. And yes, it’s not fair to compare this time with the others, since this learner already spent 15 minutes trying to figure this out on their own, but still…makes you think.


Operant conditioning is not a new concept, but the way in which these principles are applied to learning, is not something I had ever given much thought to. 

Specifically, the focus on letting the learner explore and feel their way towards the goal, and marking the correct movement when it happens. As opposed to focusing on all of the imperfections and creating a learning climate centered around simply avoiding mistakes. Somewhat akin to the difference perhaps, between playing a game to win vs. playing the game so as not to lose.

There’s more study needed of course, but in the meantime, I’m tempted to experiment with this the next time my daughter runs into a gnarly technical passage that needs a bit of problem-solving…after all, we do have a few clickers lying around somewhere (although just to be clear, there’s nothing magic about the clicky sound – a simple verbal cue like “good” is just fine too).

Have you ever tried something like this in your teaching?

To learn more…

I first learned of this study on the NPR podcast Hidden Brain. Check it out below, as the episode explores the concept and nuances in greater depth, and also paints a more vivid picture of what this kind of training looks like in practice. 

When Everything Clicks: The Power Of Judgment-Free Learning @Hidden Brain podcast


  1. 6 orthopedic residents and 6 med students
  2. 5 nonorthopedic surgical residents and 6 med students
  3. Or 217 seconds if you take out the one person in the control group who wasn’t able to figure out how to tie the knot successfully in the allotted 15 minutes

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17 Responses

  1. Interesting, but to me, possibly the most useful “takeaways” would be the importance of (a) the break-down into 6 steps, and (b) the reminder phrases for each stage. (It didn’t really sound like that great an experiment to me, as despite the use of terms like “control group” there were surely a few too many variable differences between the groups? Not that I’m that interested in pedantic scientific procedure rather than pragmatic tips to assist developing musicians.)

  2. Yes!!! I have learned so much from dog training. At one point I was tempted to start throwing smarties at my students whenever they do something right – but actually, what they really want is “well done!” I simply use “Yes!” to mark a correct “behaviour” (to use clicker training language) and I do this the moment a positive change occurs. Depending on the age of the student, I may explain at the end of the passage what it was that worked – of course I cannot do that with my dog. I still need to find a way to apply this to my own practicing, which is often “No!” – oriented…

  3. I believe the animals are treated with food after each click. It was not clear whether the human knot tiers received a treat or just the “click”.
    Also, you don’t need a clicker to train; just make a clicking sound with your mouth (or any “neutral” sound). The mouth sound is always available to signal success, whereas the clicker is not always available.
    Watch clicker training on youtube. There are many examples but here is one that shows preliminary clicker training with a sheep and then progresses to agility at about 4′ 5″ in to the video.

  4. With all due respect, I don’t believe this study measures what they thing it measured.
    It demonstrates the superiority of the whole-part-whole teaching method, to which the use of the clicker is irrelevant.

    I concur with Alexandra that the sine qua non of clicker training with, for example, horses, is to teach them to associate the click with a treat by first using the treat and the click simultaneously, then intermittently.

    To do a proper study, BOTH groups would have to use the same teaching method, and the clicker group would have to be conditioned with a reward associated with the click — a piece of chocolate, perhaps? THEN use the clicker alone and see what happens.



    1. @Adam and Graham,

      I think the podcast episode (linked at the end of the post) does a better job of explaining things, but you’re right – the essence of this training method when applied to humans is not the clicker per se, but the way in which learning is structured by breaking skills into smaller sub-skills, encouraging exploratory behaviors instead of seeking the instructor’s approval, and reinforcing the correct behaviors when they occur without emotion, so the reward is the self-satisfaction of having figured out the correct movement, and the emphasis is on learning instead of seeking approval or praise (or avoiding failure). And now that I think of it, if clicker training was directly transferred from animal training with the treat and association between treat and click, I wonder if this might make learning too focused on the achievement of a treat (or praise), and take away the focus on learning for the sake of achieving mastery.

  5. Noa, are you familiar with any of Philip Johnston’s practice strategies? I use them and numerous variations with students to turn practicing into a “game.” In general, the concept is to give the student the motivation to produce mistake-free repetitions. I find that it tempers my emotional response to carelessness or lack of focus. Instead of “No!” I just move the marker back a space or subtract points from our total.

    1. Hi Rebecca,

      That sounds interesting, and no, I haven’t come across that before. Is there a link you might be able to share or something to read online that might be helpful to start with?

      1. Jennifer gave the site. I think the games I use came from his kid’s book Not Until You’ve Done Your Practise. My go-to ones are the card game and invisible dice. For the card game, you draw 4 cards to determine the number of points needed to win. (Face cards are 10. Aces are 20.) Then you draw another card. If you play the selection correctly, you win the card toward your points. If you make a mistake, the card is added to the “goal” pile. I like to let cards cancel out whenever possible. Some math-astute students have done a little fancy exchanging when the values don’t work out neatly.

        For invisible (or imaginary) dice, the goal is 30 points. You are going to roll 2 dice and play for that number of points. A mistake gives you negative points. Since the dice are invisible, the student gets to pick the number.

        I highly recommend the short but informative chapter How to Practise Three Hours a Day and Sound Really Really Bad.

  6. Just a comment from basic dog obedience training a L O N G time ago. (Maybe techniques have moved on since then.) Actually our jr. hi age daughter was the “trainer” for 2 of our dogs (one at a time) at a community ed high school gym. Maybe 20 or so dogs of every type & size in one big circle, and the pro trainer with his “student” dog in the center. He was adamant: “If your dog misbehaves, doesn’t respond correctly, maybe runs all over instead of obeying a command, NEVER [I repeat, “NEVER”] scold, reprimand, or punish. Just continue working on the command, and praise the dog when he/she catches on correctly. The pro trainer was very strong (a bit rough at times) in working with his own dog, but never abusive. The main idea of basic obedience training was to sensitize the dog to the owner’s tone of voice.

    1. Two points: Coming from a decidedly ‘humanistic approach – to my music therapy practice – I also use authentic praise when a client achieves a task correctly, and I avoid negative responses. In working with a piano student who was on the autism spectrum, I’d found early on that even slight attempts at correction were met with alarm, so I adjusted and only responded with positive input when some aspect of the task was completed correctly. (Certain factors – such as rhythm – were too difficult for the student to even deal with, so I dropped most expectations and assistance in getting that part correct. (I’m not sure if the following applies, but the saying, “It’s not what you say or do, but how you make the other person feel,” seems to apply – and empathy is tops – in my approach.

      Another point is that in trying to teach my (believe it or not!) pet bunnies to ‘shake a paw for a treat,’ I did apply the operant conditioning technique (Skinner originated it?): With the treat in my left hand – and holding it close enough for the bunny to sniff it – and with my saying “Shake a paw for a treat” – I would reach with my right hand – for the bunny’s right paw – and if he did not allow me to take the paw and shake it, I’d pull the treat slightly back and say, “You have to shake a paw first!” Soon I was ‘allowed’ to take the paw and shake it – and then move the treat close enough for the bunny to ‘mouth’ and take the treat. So, yes, the association/pairing of the words and actions (“Shake a paw”) with the ‘wanted reward’ (treat), are beginning to sink in. True, the bunnies are 6.5 yrs. old now, but, heck, they’re slow learners, I guess – and not really used to ‘paying a toll’ for a treat’ – but we’re getting there….

  7. My first thought was the same as Adam and Graham’s above (it’s not the clicker, it’s the break-it-down approach). Moreover, behaviorism/Skinnerism has been pretty thoroughly demolished (though apparently not everyone has gotten the memo).

    But I think it’s important to realize that dogs and horses, perhaps the two most socially sensitive of our animal companion species, _really_ want to please their humans. There has to be trust first, but from then on it’s more about warmth, praise, enthusiasm, and affection. See, for example, this article about how researchers trained dogs to lie perfectly still in an MRI scanner: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/animalia/wp/2016/08/31/heres-how-scientists-got-dogs-to-lie-still-in-a-brain-scanner-for-eight-minutes/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.192f510ecff8

    Also, there was a Sundance Festival award-winning documentary called “Buck” about a cowboy named Buck Brannaman who “helps horses with people problems.” He talks about making it easy for horses (and people) to do the right thing, and hard to do the wrong thing. There’s a link to the film’s trailer and some more thoughts about animal-human interactions, curiosity, and respect here: https://wwwmiscellaneousmusings.blogspot.com/

  8. I have been using clicker training on young string players for a couple of years. They all love it and learn remarkably quickly with one exception, a child who’s mother trains dogs.

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