A primary reinforcer is a reinforcer that an animal is born needing such as food, water, shelter. Secondary, or conditioned, reinforcers are stimuli, objects, or events that become reinforcing based on their association with a primary reinforcer. A dog isn't born wanting to play with a squeaky toy, but when that toy is paired with primary reinforcers such as fun and social interaction, it becomes a conditioned reinforcer. The toy, then, can be used to reinforce behaviors you like, much as you would use a food treat.
The clicker is commonly called a conditioned reinforcer. It is a neutral stimulus paired consistently with a primary reinforcer. Is the association, however, strong enough that you can use the clicker without a primary reinforcer? If so, are there any negative repercussions, and how long can you use the clicker before you needed to "recharge" it? These were the questions debated on the Click-L mailing list this week.
Students at the University of North Texas are currently researching this topic. They've found, according to fellow student Kellie Snider, that "treatless clicks" resulted in frustration behaviors and other learning problems. However that research was done using dogs new to clicker training. Helix Fairweather, a Click-L member, decided to try the experiment on her clicker-savvy Havanese, BJ. Although the "power" of the clicker lasted longer than it had in the UNT experiment, she found that it extinguished fairly quickly, especially once her dog figured out the pattern of reinforcement. When there was nothing in it for him, there was no reason to play the game.
And that, I think, is the crux of the matter. People who use treatless clicks have simply missed the point. We don't use the clicker in order to get by with as little additional reinforcement as possible. We use the clicker to tell our dogs, "That right there is what I want!" The power of the click, to the trainer, is as an event marker.
To the dog, however, the power of the click is as a signal that he gets something he wants. If he can get something he wants by listening to the click and then repeating that behavior you want, then we've found a wonderful win-win tool. But when you take away his motivation for listening, then the clicker is nothing but a tin noisemaker.