Clicker Training Step 1: Teach Food Delivery

I’m (finally) starting to have some success with clicker training the rats. (Check out Georgie’s debut on youtube in this post, Rat Clicker Training Success.)

Who would have thought training a rat would be this hard? In this post I’ll explain some of the initial troubles I had and describe how I finally trained the clicker. At the beginning, we must teach the animal that the click means food is coming and what they should do to get the food. Otherwise, the clicker will not be an effective training tool.

Can Rats be Clicker Trained?

I initially got Georgie and Lucy about a month ago with all sorts of dreams of fun training goals. However, my early training attempts with Georgie were absolute failures. She’d take a couple of treats and then she’d run off to check out something or crawl up my shoulder to play in my hair. I tried putting her on a small table and she’d crawl down the legs. I tried putting her in a box. She jumped out!

We started being successful when I made the four changes below. These are all good things to think about when you start clicker training an animal.

1. Remove Distractions
The training environment should be clean and clutter free. Rats are VERY curious! At the beginning, I had too many extra things present that Georgie could investigate and interact with. With fewer distractions, the animal can be more focused on the training task.

2. Limit the environment
Smaller training spaces are better at the beginning. A box or small table limits the extent that the rat can roam and explore. With Georgie, I also had to make sure that she couldn’t climb down the legs of the table, or jump from the table to me.

3. Find a high value treat
I pick my training treats using the principles of DISC. It’s also important to find a reward that the animal can consume quickly and that is easy for you to deliver. For my rats, half of a chocolate Rice Krispy works great!

4. Plan for optimal food delivery
How are you going to give the animal the treat? Will you hand it to her, place it in a specific spot, or use some other method? At the beginning I was presenting the treats on a plastic spoon. Georgie would often miss the treat and go running up my arm instead! I switched to dropping the treat on a piece of duct tape and later to handing it to her. These both were easier ways for her to find the treat.

5. Keep sessions short
We’ve been keeping training sessions at 10 treats, which is about 2-3 minutes. Short sessions means she doesn’t get distracted or get full of treats.

Teaching the rat the meaning of the Clicker

The clicker can have many meanings to the animal. Primarily, I believe that the click serves as a conditioned reinforcer and as a cue for the animal to come get the food.

I want Georgie rat to:
1. Come promptly to get the food when they hear the click
2. Not spend extra time looking for food if I haven’t clicked

Here’s how I taught this:

Step 1: Let the rat get use to the environment
I started by letting Georgie explore and get use to the training area.

Step 2: Teach where food comes from
Next I started periodically dropping pieces of food onto a small piece of duct tape in the front corner. Once she figured out which corner food came from, she started coming over periodically to check this spot.

Step 3: Click when the rat’s coming to get food
I would wait until Georgie was heading for the food delivery corner and then click and present a treat. I wanted the click to be very close in time to the food delivery and to mean come immediately to get food. So, I start by clicking when she’s already heading for the proper corner.

Step 4: Start varying when I click
Now that Georgie’s starting to get the hang of how this works, I click at different times and when she’s in different parts of the training area. I am still training the meaning of the clicker, so I don’t want to heavily reinforcer any one particular behavior.

Step 5: Make the click even stronger
Right now I can tell that Georgie is listening to the click and watching for the movement of my hand. I want to make sure that I can use the clicker to reinforce behavior and that I won’t accidentally reinforce behavior by moving my hand towards the feeding spot. This is the step we’re working on now. Sometimes I click and then move my hand to feed her. Sometimes I move my hand but don’t feed her. She’s figuring out that she needs to pay extra attention to the click because this is the best predictor of when food is coming.

So, that’s where we are now with clicker training! Although this post is about rats, most of these ideas apply equally well to clicker training dogs, clicker training horses or clicker training any other animals. Check out this video of Georgie working on clicker training if you haven’t seen it already. You might also the list I wrote recently of 10 tips to improve your clicker training. You can also read lots more about my rats and their training adventures on the rat clicker training page.

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