Simple Cat and Dog Training Technique as Easy as "Click, Treat, Learn"

Woman using clicker in front of dog
Dreamstime

When I say "click," I'm not talking about getting along well, although I sure hope that you do. I mean a training technique that's easy and fun for all.

Clicker training is a no-force technique that works on animals of all sizes, ages and abilities. And that's also true of the people who would administer clicker training since it doesn't require strength or much coordination on the part of the trainer.

A clicker is a small plastic box that fits in the palm of your hand. You press down on the metal strip inside the housing and quickly release it — click-click!

The clicker itself doesn't have any magic powers. What it provides is timing — it allows a trainer working with a pet who understands the game to let the animal know the behavior he's doing right now is the one that's being rewarded. And that means the behavior will be repeated. The clicking noise becomes a reward because, in the early stages of training, the sound is linked to the delivery of something a pet wants, usually a tiny but yummy treat.

Does this sound familiar? Like from a psychology class, perhaps? It should ring a bell, because the underlying principal of clicker training is scientific (Pavlov's drooling dogs, and all). But you can be excused if you don't want to know the ins and outs of the science and just want to cut to the chase.

After all, your pet is just as eager as you are to get to the good part, too.

You start by teaching your pet that a click means a treat. Pick a time when your pet isn't sleeping (not right after a meal) and is a little hungry (a couple of hours before a meal). Choose a relatively small, quiet place where you can work without too many distractions, and prepare a pouch or bowl of tiny, yummy treats (diced hot dogs are popular, as are pieces of cheese or chicken). For the next few minutes, click and treat. One click, one treat. Again and again and again. Eventually your pet will show you he understands that the sound means food. For example, he may look immediately to the source of the treats after hearing the click.

When that happens, you're on to the next stage. But wait until your next session, because clicker training works best with a couple of short sessions — less than 10 minutes — every day.

When you're ready for round 2, sit quietly with your clicker and treats — and wait. Your pet should start volunteering behaviors, everything from sitting to pawing to wandering in a circle. When your pet chooses one you like, click, treat and wait again. Your pet will initially be confused but should eventually offer the behavior again. Be patient! When that moment comes, click, treat and wait, again.

Say you clicked your pet a couple of times because he finally got bored and sat. Soon your pet will sit to test his theory that sitting means a click-treat. When that happens, click and "jackpot" him with a handful of treats. When the pattern is firmly established, you can then give it a name ("sit") and make the food reward more random to strengthen it. (This is the principal that keeps you pulling a slot machine handle.)

In future sessions you'll move on from the "sit" that your pet knows. You'll wait for more behaviors to click, treat and name as you build your pet's repertoire of commands. More complicated behaviors are trained by "chaining" — training in pieces and putting them together.

One more thing: Never punish your pet for not getting it right. Clicker training is all about the payoff, and once you get it mastered, there's no end to the things you can teach your pet to do.

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