Clicking to Success:
Clicker Training for Beginners
By TD Yandt
Clicker training is
a form of operant conditioning. Itís a way to train your
pets without punishments or harsh corrections. Itís building
a path of clear communication between yourself and your pet.
It builds trust, increases confidence, and results in a happy,
eager-to-please pet who loves being with their person.
The typical clicker
is a small hand-held rectangle made of plastic. You slip
your thumb into a hole in the side and push down on a metal
piece that makes a clicking noise. Clickers are typically
available at any good pet supply store, small mom-and-pop
dog shops, or the little corner pet store. You can also find
them online at several sources. They come in a range of styles
and shapes, with the typical rectangle box being the most
widely available. They range in price from $1.50 to about
$7.50. Price does not always reflect a difference in quality.
The first thing you
need to teach your pet is what the click means. The easiest
way to do this is by setting up a really relaxed first training
session. You arenít teaching any tricks or shaping any behaviors,
so there is no way you can do this wrong. Relax and just
have fun with your pet.
Pick a favorite treat
-- for dogs, a hot-dog sliced into little pieces; for a bird,
a bit of raspberry; for a cat, a can of flaked tuna; for
your rat, a dab of baby food, etc. Whatever your pet loves
to munch. Itís important to pick something your pet really
enjoys. However, some words of warning: Be sure not to pick
anything too big. You want tiny nibble-sized portions whenever
you are training. Something that takes more than two or three
chews is too big. Think soft and tiny.
Now, with your treats
beside you and your clicker in hand, you are ready to start
your first training session. Click, and give your pet a treat.
Do it again. Click and give him another treat. Click, and
treat. Click, and treat. Click, and treat. Notice a pattern?
By this point, your
pet should be starting to anticipate that when he hears a
click, he will get a treat. Keep repeating this. Click, and
give him a treat. Click, and give a treat. Click, and treat.
Click, and treat. Isnít this fun? Once you start noticing
that with every click your pet is looking to you for a treat,
he has learned what the click means. It means a treat is
coming. Itís a promise of something good.
Your pet may not understand
the concept of conditioning, or that you are teaching him
that the click is a marker and a contract between the two
of you. All he knows is that he must have done something
to please you, because when you click you are happy and he
knows you will give him a treat he really loves. And this
is what is important. It is building up your pet's confidence
and trust in you.
At this point, you should
end this first training session. So click one more time,
and give your pet a ďjackpotĒ - a small handful of treats;
four or five treats is a perfect amount. You always want
to end a training session with a success and the occasional
jackpot. Itís important that you end each training session
on a positive note, so your pet will look forward to training
with you next time.
Now. This is when the
fun really begins. Itís time to start playing the clicker
game with a goal in mind. For your first behavior, itís best
to pick something really simple; a behavior that your pet
already does naturally. For a dog, try sit, down, come, or
a kiss. For a bird, try a whistle or a wing flap. All of
these are really simple to shape.
Clicker training really
is a matter of breaking tasks into small easy-to-train steps.
This is one of the many reasons that this form of training
is used for assistance dogs. You can take a very complex
task, like getting the mail, by taking it one step at a time.
This is, for some people, the most difficult part of clicker
training. For some people, it comes really naturally, and
for others, itís hard to think through a task in such baby
Letís look at shaping ďstep
upĒ with your pet budgie. The first time you click in this
session should be when your bird looks at your hand (that
youíve conveniently placed near him). Donít forget to give
him a treat right after that click. When he looks at your
hand again, click and treat. Do this a few times until you
are sure that he understands that what you want is for him
to look at your finger before ďupping the stakes.Ē
"Upping the stakes" refers
to increasing your expectations, moving one step closer to
the end behavior. In this instance, you are going from clicking
when your budgie looks at your hand, to clicking when he
moves towards your hand. Some birds may only lean towards
your hand, while others will take a step towards you. In
either case, click and treat. If it takes three steps (a
lean, a shuffle, and then a step) or one, thatís fine. Remember
to break things into tiny baby steps.
When your budgie is
reliably taking a step towards you, then start clicking if
he touches your hand with his beak, wing or foot. Work towards
getting him to touch your hand with his foot. Keep slowly
upping the stakes, one small step at a time, until your budgie
is consistently climbing onto your finger.
Once your budgie is
reliably stepping onto your finger when itís offered, itís
time to add the cue. In this case, it would be ďstep up.Ē We
only start adding the cue when we are at least 80 percent
sure that your pet will offer the desired behavior. Say ďstep
upĒ right before your bird does so, and click the moment
he is on your finger. Just keep practicing, and before long,
when you ask your bird to step up, he will.
The keys to training
any behavior are patience, consistency and repetition.
1. Be patient. It takes
time for an animal to really understand what you are asking
for. If you find you are starting to get frustrated, take
a break. It is possible you are trying to take too big of
a leap. Make sure to break down each behavior into small
2. Be consistent. If
you let your cat on the sofa once, and push her off the next
time, you will end up with a very confused cat. Decide on
the rules and stick to them. Do not reward your pet for a
behavior on one occasion and punish her for it the next.
3. Be repetitious, it
may seem redundant to ask for behaviors you think your pet
already knows, but animals donít generalize. Practice each
cue in many environments (kitchen, bathroom, yard, etc.)
and from different positions (sitting, standing, kneeling,
etc.) to ďproofĒ the behavior.
If you are patient,
consistent and repetitious, you will be able to train your
pet to do all sorts of fun and useful tasks. A well-trained
pet will help you, your family and your pet enjoy your time
together much much more.
A former pet
groomer, TD Yandt is currently working as an artist and
animal trainer. Her goal is to positively impact the
lives of pets and their people by providing an education
on individual species, their proper care and the use
of operant conditioning to enhance the human-animal bond.
You can learn more about TD and her animal family at