Clicker training is a very common way of teaching a dog a new trick, or skill, or behaviour. However, it can also be used in other animals – including cats, horses and even rabbits! The basic principle is very simple, but using it, we can teach our pets all sorts of behaviours by using a fun, positive method.

What do I need?

It’s really simple – you need a pet (!), a clicker (you can buy them online for a few pounds), and some treats that your pet loves. It may take a few goes to work out what your pet likes best, but they’ll let you know! The technique can be used in any species, but it’s often most effective in dogs and horses, who are generally more motivated by food than cats or small pets, e.g. rabbits.

What does the clicker do?

The clicker is an “arbitrary signal” – an otherwise meaningless sound that we imbue with meaning by our actions. Essentially, the pet rapidly learns that “click” means “well done”, and so it can be used as a concrete training tool. This is because whenever they hear a click, you offer them a treat – and it only takes a few goes before they learn that’s what it means!

Every time you click and then give a treat, you are reinforcing that linkage between correct behaviour, a click, and a reward.

Why is a click better than any other signal?

Mainly because it’s utterly constant – verbal commands will vary depending on your mood, and hand signals may easily be missed by a pet concentrating hard on something else. The click is always the same, and always means the same thing; it’s also pitched to cut through background noise so they can hear it clearly whatever they’re doing.

How do I go about teaching a new skill?

First, make sure your pet understands the link between click and reward.

Then, introduce the new skill you want them to learn. One technique you can use is called “moulding” where you help them perform, by shaping or otherwise encouraging the behaviour, then rewarding them; then add a command and reward them; then stop moulding, and reward them for getting it right on command. Eventually, you can phase out the clicker, only using it occasionally to reinforce the training – although you still need to be giving praise like “well done!” or some fuss, or the occasional treat.

For example, if you want your dog to learn to sit, you might:

  • Gently press their hindquarters down until they sit (moulding).
  • Immediately click for them (reward).
  • Once they will sit from gentle pressure, you add in the voice command (e.g. “sit”) at the same time.
  • Click and reward when they get it right.
  • Then, stop applying hand pressure, and just give the verbal command
  • And click and reward them again when they even start to respond – e.g. crouching but not sitting.
  • Eventually, they’ll work out what you want and perform just on voice command.

For simple “tricks” or skills, this might only take a few sessions, but for more complex ones it will be longer – the key thing, however, is to click as soon as they are doing something right, some part of the skill that’s a stepping stone to the desired end result.

Are there any pitfalls to watch out for?

There are a few common problems to watch out for:

  • Make sure before you start that your pet isn’t scared of the clicking noise – a few animals find it quite frightening. If so, try and find one with a slightly different tone, because the emotional response means it isn’t an arbitrary signal, but a negative one.
  • Remember to click as they’re doing something correct, not afterwards – one of the great strengths of a clicker is that it’s so fast you can reward them in real time.
  • You must give them a reward every time you click (even if it was an accident!) otherwise it won’t work. They need to be absolutely sure that a click means a reward.
  • Give them time to enjoy their reward – remember, most animals can’t grasp the concept of deferred gratification, so a click means the end of the exercise for the moment!
  • Remember that they may get a lot of treats during a training session – so you may need to reduce their main meals accordingly if they’re prone to weight gain!

If you want more advice, please give your vet a ring and one of your vets or nurses will be happy to help! We all want to see positive training resulting in well-behaved, happy and skilful pets.