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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 steps.

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 baby steps.

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 www.noselicks.com.

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