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Should You Clicker Train Your Small Animal Pet?

These tips explain why you can enjoy clicker training rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, hamsters, rats and other small animal pets.

Joan Orr and Teresa Lewin
Posted: August 13, 2014, 5:25 p.m. EDT

What do rabbits, chinchillas, ferrets, hamsters, mice, rats, sugar gliders, flying squirrels, guinea pigs and other small pets have in common? Furry and lovable, of course. Quirky and silly? Sometimes. Full of energy and mischief? Undoubtedly. Trainable? You bet! 

Clicker training allows you to communicate how much you like your pet’s actions and allows your pet to show you how he thinks. Fun for you and the pet, it helps to develop a bond between human and animal. 

Training sessions allow your pet to use his natural abilities and enjoy mental and physical stimulation. Your trained pet will delight you with tricks and antics, which will likely make you want to take him out of the cage more often.

If you would like to engage in more activities with your pet, improve aspects of your pet’s behavior, clip his nails without a fight, teach him to come out from behind the refrigerator or simply enhance the relationship you have with him, then clicker training is for you.

What Is Clicker Training?
Clicker training is a marker-based teaching system in which a click sound indicates to a pet that he has done the right thing. A small hand-held device that clicks when pressed makes the sound. A food treat always follows the click so that the pet associates the click with something good. Soon the pet wants to hear the click sound, because he knows that a treat will follow. 

Clicker training teaches the pet that he can cause you to click by his own actions. Perhaps you click and treat each time that the pet comes toward you in his cage. Soon the pet will try to get you to click by coming toward you when you come near the cage. Next, you add a verbal cue (a command), and the pet will start coming to you when called.

"It is very exciting to see an animal experience the ‘Aha!’ moment when he suddenly realizes that he can actively control the clicker game,” said clicker-training pioneer Karen Pryor.

Something that you can give to your pet to make him feel happy and cause him to repeat a behavior is called a positive reinforcer. This can be food, petting, freedom or a chance to play with a favorite toy. Food treats provide the strongest reinforcers for most pets. 

Clicker training uses only two techniques to influence a pet’s behavior. One is positive reinforcement, and the other is to ignore behavior that you don’t like. Reinforced behavior will become stronger, while ignored behavior will fade away.

Clicker training does not use scolding, punishment, physical force, fear or intimidation. Incorrect behavior simply is ignored; not even a simple "no” is used. Scientific studies conducted at the University of North Texas under the direction of Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz have proven that animals learn faster and retain the learning better if there is no correction during teaching (even a mild reminder).

You may be thinking, "Why do I need the clicker? Why can’t I just give the pet a treat without the click sound? Why can’t I just say ‘good boy’ to my pet rather than clicking?” 

The magic of the click comes from its clarity, consistency and precision. The click occurs the moment that the behavior happens so that the pet knows exactly what he did to deserve a treat. It usually is not possible to deliver a treat with such precision, especially if your pet is in a cage or across the room from you.

three guinea pigs

Guinea pigs Wilbur, Rodney and Panda© Courtesy Jennifer Suski
Once one pet learns a trick, he can sometimes teach it to other pets in the home.

All Pets Benefit
We never have met a pet that cannot be clicker-trained. Some pets learn more quickly, and some will work longer. Some get bored easily, but you can clicker train any pet that can be motivated by something that you have and it wants. 

Sometimes it takes a few sessions for a pet to get used to the sound of the clicker or to associate the click with the treat. Some pets catch on right away. 

Some pets are so thrilled with clicker training that they tell all their friends. We taught Gwen the ferret to touch a ball with her nose. In her zeal, she actually leapt onto the ball from the back of the couch. When she realized that she was controlling the game, she became so excited by the click that she did a happy ferret dance without even receiving her treat. 

The next day, Gwen taught eight ferrets to touch the ball to get a click and treat. This type of mimicking in animals is not uncommon. 

Marigold the guinea pig was watching a rabbit learning to touch a target. She went over to the trainer and touched the target 10 times in a row for a click and a treat without any previous training.

The key to success with clicker training a small pet is to understand the animal. Observe the pet to see what he likes to eat, what kinds of behaviors he does naturally and what kind of environment he prefers. Take note of what type of home he likes to have, what kinds of toys and activities he likes, how to keep him healthy and what kinds of treats you can use for training. 

What Can I Teach My Pet?
With clicker training, you can teach your pet to do anything that he is physically capable of doing. The easiest things to start with are things that your pet does naturally. For example, all pets move around and can be taught to come when called. All pets can be taught to touch a target with their nose or paws. 

Fun Behaviors: You are limited only by your imagination and the physical abilities of your pet in terms of the tricks that you can train. Your pet can go under, over or through obstacles. Many pets can jump, run and climb. Some pets can grasp and hold objects with their paws. Sugar gliders can grasp with their tails, gerbils can wink, flying squirrels can leap from shoulder to shoulder, and guinea pigs can sing. 

All these behaviors can be turned into tricks by shaping or by simply "capturing” them with a click when they happen naturally and by putting them on a verbal cue or hand signal.

Useful Behaviors: Useful behaviors that you can teach include coming when called; going to bed on cue; sitting on your shoulder, in your hands or in a basket; and being gentle with their mouths when they interact with you. 

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:
How To 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, 5:25 p.m. EDT


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Should You Clicker Train Your Small Animal Pet?

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Reader Comments
I'd love to work on clicker training with my ferrets; it would be so beneficial!
Autum, Caldwell, ID
Posted: 3/29/2015 1:22:52 PM
Great article. I love that you're promoting clicker training. I'm creating a new clicker training ring tool that people can wear to capture behaviors any time and place. Find out more at ClickerPlus.com and contact me if it's something you'd be interested in featuring or selling on your site. Thank you for your consideration!
Josh, Chico, CA
Posted: 11/29/2014 7:56:33 PM
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