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How To Clicker Train Your Small Animal Pet

Use these four steps to clicker train your pet and then go beyond the basics.

Joan Orr and Teresa Lewin
Posted: August 13, 2014, 6:30 p.m. EDT

1. Get A Clicker And Click Right!
To begin clicker training, all you need is a clicker (or anything that makes a consistent, sharp sound) and something your pet wants that you can readily provide. Food is the easiest reward to deliver and the most powerful for most pets.

At first, the click must come immediately before the treat to build the association between click and treat. Click, and give the pet a treat. The treat can be placed on the ground if the pet does not take food from your hand or is overly excited or nippy. 

As soon as the pet picks up the food, click. Wait for the pet to do something — take a step, look at you, move a paw — any movement, and then click and treat. 

The click must occur at the exact moment that the pet performs the movement that is being marked. Soon your pet will try to repeat behaviors that earned a click and a treat, and the game is on!

2. Find The Right Reinforcers
Possible reinforcers are food, praise, attention, petting, toys and games. To identify the best reinforcer for your pet, observe him to see what makes him happy. If the pet tries to hide or run from you, then your actions are not making him happy. 

You might think that your pet enjoys certain types of handling, but he might be saying otherwise with his body language. If you see licking, yawning, scratching or sneezing that is out of context when you try to interact with him, then your pet is telling you that he feels anxious. 

Many animals become very intense when involved in clicker training. While they ordinarily might enjoy petting or handling, they do not want it when they are trying to learn. Food is the best reinforcer when teaching new lessons.

To identify favorite food treats, offer a mixture in a bowl, and see which are chosen first. Once you identify favorite foods, reserve these for training. To avoid feeding your pet too many treats, measure out the treats for the day. When these are used up, the training is over. Some pets might work for part of their regular food ration.

Do not withhold food from your pet to make him hungry for training. This is not consistent with the positive nature of clicker training, and animals that are frantic for food are not in a good state of mind for stress-free learning. You might take the food bowl out of the cage an hour or so before a training session, especially with very small pets, to be sure the pet is not full before a training session, but never starve a pet to increase motivation for food.

Also observe when your pet likes to eat, and do your initial training sessions at that time. If you have a pet — such as a rat, mouse, hamster or squirrel — that stores his food in a hiding place, you can use as much as you like of a favorite food during a training session and then retrieve most of it from the hiding place when the pet is not looking. It’s a good thing that small pets can’t count!

Don’t be surprised if something that the pet likes one day is of no interest to him the next or if your pet suddenly wanders off in the middle of a training session. This happens in training with many animals, so just be patient and have fun with your pet. 

Clicker training is about building a relationship and forming a bond of trust with your animal. If the pet is not in the mood for training, just wait and try another time.

rabbit eating veggie
Rabbit Poncho Montana© Courtesy Mary Gail McPhee
Watch your pet eat and see what he or she likes to help you choose a food to use for training.

3. The Training Area
Give your pet lots of opportunity to explore the training area. For very small pets such as mice and hamsters, the training area can be a box with high sides. The bathtub can be a good training area for rats and smaller pets. Be sure to line it with a nonslip rubber pad and close the drain hole. 

The bathroom is a good training area for rabbits, degus, chinchillas, ferrets, sugar gliders and flying squirrels. It usually can be stripped of most distractions and can provide a safe area where the pet can explore without finding too much excitement. Make sure that the toilet lid is closed and secured, and place a towel at the bottom of the door in the case of sugar gliders and flying squirrels. 

If you and your clicker and treats are the most interesting thing in the room, your pet will spend more time interacting with you. 

Click and treat for any interaction that you want to encourage. When your pet has learned to come to you and do some tricks in the bathroom or other restricted training area, move on to training in other areas with more distractions. Give your pet lots of time to explore a new area, and don’t expect the same level of response that you received in the restricted training area. The training area always should have a litter box for pets that use one and a box or house where the pet can hide if he feels insecure.

Flying squirrels and sugar gliders can be encouraged to enjoy your company if you carry them around in your pocket or in a special sleeping pouch for a period during the day while they are sleeping. This helps them bond with you and want to be near you when they are awake.

4. Add A Cue
A cue tells your pet what you want him to do to receive the click and treat. A cue can be a word or a hand signal. Once a pet reliably offers a behavior, a cue can be added. 

One thing that all small pets can learn to do is to come when called. This is useful as well as impressive. At first, the pet will have no idea what you are doing. He might take a few sessions to catch on, be patient. Even fish can learn to do behaviors on cue.

Click and treat if your pet looks at you or in your general direction. Click and treat if the pet takes a step toward you. You can do this while the pet is in the cage or out of the cage in your training area. Click and treat every time the pet comes into your space.

When the pet seems to come toward you intentionally, start to move around a little so that the pet has to work a little harder to get the click and treat. When you are sure that the pet is coming toward you on purpose, add the cue "come” plus your pet’s name if desired. Click and treat when the pet gets to you.

Give the cue "come” only when you know that the pet is already on the way. This ensures that the cue "come” is only ever associated with the action of coming. If your pet is going in the opposite direction, or sitting still and you say "come” over and over, this teaches the pet that "come” means run away or sit still. 

Once you have said the word "come” while the pet already is coming to you and you have given a click and treat for this 50 times, try saying the word before the pet starts to come to see if the pet understands the cue. If he comes, then you can practice calling the pet from very close and eventually farther away and with increasing levels of distraction — with a click and treat for every correct response.

If the pet does not come, then you will need to practice more. Say the cue "come” while the pet already is coming to you until the pet makes the association of the cue "come” with the action of coming to you. 

After many repetitions, reduce the frequency of the click/treat when the pet comes on cue. Instead reward with a game or a new toy or something else that the pet likes. Never call the pet, and then do something unpleasant.

The first cue is the most difficult to teach. Once the pet gets the idea that the cues you give are an opportunity for him to do an action and receive a click and treat, it will be easier to teach more cues for other behaviors.

The sequence in teaching cues is always the same:
— Get the behavior happening on its own (click and treat every time the pet does the behavior).
— Say the cue word (or give the hand signal cue) at the same time that the pet is doing the behavior (click/treat every time).
— Finally give the cue before the behavior, and click/treat when the pet responds correctly. 

The Next Step: Target Training
Target training is a very useful tool for teaching other things and for leading your pet around without a leash. A suitable target can be a small ball on the end of a stick, a margarine container lid or anything that you can hold and the pet can see easily. Pets can be taught to touch a target through the use of a technique called shaping. 

Shaping is the process of incrementally developing a behavior one step at a time. Shape behaviors by raising the criteria (asking your pet to work a little harder for the click) required for the pet to receive a click. 

For example, in teaching a pet to follow a target (a ball, for example), place the ball on the ground, and click/treat if the pet looks at it. Then click/treat when the pet takes a step toward the ball and then when he touches the ball. Next, hold the ball in your hand, and click/treat for looking at the ball, then touching it and so on until the pet will move to touch the ball wherever you hold it. 

Use the ball to move the pet from place to place. Attach the ball to the end of a stick, and guide the pet. Click/treat after one step of following the ball, then two steps and so on, until the pet will follow the ball wherever you move it. 

Targeting can be used to teach other behaviors, including walking beside you, coming to you, going into the cage, going into the litter box, and learning to trust and follow a new person. 

In shaping, as in all aspects of clicker training, mistakes are ignored. If the pet does not receive a click three times in a row, then the criteria should be lowered temporarily to ensure success and to prevent frustration (go back to a step that your pet performed reliably to earn a click). Once a pet becomes frustrated it might refuse to play anymore and leave you to conduct its own, more important, small-pet business.

You can use the target to guide the pet and show him what you want him to do. Once the new behavior is happening reliably, reduce the use of the target by making it disappear before the pet actually touches it, while clicking and treating for the behavior or the position that you are trying to teach.

Use the general shaping approach to teach each new trick. Use the target, or set up the training area in such a way that the pet is almost certain to do the behavior that you want. Click and treat for anything the pet does that gets closer to the desired behavior. This is like the child’s game of "hot and cold.” The click and treat is the "hot” aspect, and the absence of the click and treat is the "cold” aspect. Your pet will not learn faster if you say "no” or otherwise correct it; in fact, he might quit playing the game altogether if you do so.

Fade The Clicker And Treats
You do not need to click/treat forever. Once a behavior is learned and a cue is established, the click/treat can fade by using it less frequently and then only occasionally. 

Don’t, however, rush to fade out the click/treat. The longer a behavior has been reinforced, the stronger it will be and the less likely it will be to weaken and disappear. If one day the pet seems to forget everything he has ever learned, go back to the beginning and start again. Suddenly everything will come back and more quickly than the first time.

Once your pet starts offering behaviors intentionally and looking at you as if to say, "Is this it? How about this?” you will know that he is a clicker pet. You can move on to teaching more advanced skills and chaining behaviors together. 

This article originally appeared in the Critters USA 2007 annual magazine. Joan Orr and Teresa Lewin are behind the website Doggone Crazy

Like this article? Please share it, and check out:
Should You Clicker Train Your Small Animal Pet?
Train Your Gerbils To Do Tricks
Ferret Training Basics
Small Animal Pets Learn Tricks From Owners Who Communicate And Bond With Them 

Posted: August 13, 2014, 6:30 p.m. EDT


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