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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  • This is great. It's not very often you see posts about clicker training rats. 🙂 I used to have rats that I did some training with, and after reading this I'm tempted to go adopt a couple baby rats and get back into it.

    I had the same problem with the rat taking the treat and running off. My solution was baby food: I would put a little on a spoon or a popsicle stick and let them lick it off. Banana flavor was their favorite.

  • Pingback: Setting up Optimal Training Sessions | Stale Cheerios()

  • achieve1dream

    I love your posts. They are so informative and well written.

    Is chocolate safe for rats? I know it isn't for dogs so I just kind of assumed it wasn't for all animals. Dunno. Just curious.

    I'm glad Georgie is finally figuring it out. It can be so frustrating when they don't understand something in the beginning stages. Well for me it can because I can be impatient lol. Keep up the great work!

    • Gwen

      Chocolate is fine for rats. The better the chocolate, the better the rat likes it too.

  • Mary, I'm learning about clicker training rats and have a question about charging the clicker. I tried what I thought was the proper method before reading this blog. I had a small cage, about 10 inches x 8 inches (a holding cage, nothing used regularly for a rat). The rat is not well socialized so couldn't be trusted to not bolt off a larger open table, hence the need for a cage. I also couldn't trust leaving the door open in order to reach in with a treat, but I knew it would be wrong to hand a treat in the same exact spot each time… So I let the rat roam (very limited roaming of course) and then at opportune moments met the rat's nose at various places along the cage walls with a click-treat. Repeated this about 30 times all over the cage. Near the end I tested whether or not there was a connection for the rat between click and treat by clicking without immediately handing a treat, but I never saw any new curious looking or other signal to tell me the rat was thinking, “oh, yes, isn't there supposed to be a treat now?” I think I saw total non-recognition. My questions are: (1) is it a viable method to randomly CT as the rat merely roams around? In contrast to your focus on methods to bring her to the treat before clicking?  (2) I suspect and is this true that a cage this small is too small, (3) Is handing treats through the bars compromising the charging method's effectiveness (I will gues not as long as one is using a sound method to start with?), and (4) How long should the session be and how many sessions/day are ideal, and how many days' practice do you think it should take for the average (brilliant, of course) rat to make the connection? THANKS!

    • Hi Gwen,

      I think I answered most of your questions in the post I just wrote on Dolore's zen list. Please let me know though, if you still have questions.

      I am glad that you are clicker training your rats!



  • Wow, I just found this blog, and I am so excited. I've attempted clicker training with my rats, and it was clear that my rats were smarter than I. They understood the clicker, but they couldn't always understand me. My big eureka moment was realizing that pointing for a rat is meaningless as they are essentially blind. You have to show them with sound, smell or vibration. I've also struggled with the treats. I'd used a chocolate bar, but Patches figured out how to break off huge pieces instead of the scrapes that had initially worked well. I'm looking forward to trying chocolate rice krispies. Now, to read your other posts to see what else I can learn.

    • Hi Betsy,

      Thanks for leaving a comment.

      You know, I had clicker training experience with horses and dogs before trying my rats — and I was surprised at how difficult it was at first with my first rat. So don't give up!

      The cereal works great, give it a try. Cheerios broken into fourths work great as well. Some people also use apple sauce, pudding, or very watered down peanut butter in a syringe. Might be something else to try. For each reward, you can give the rat a couple of licks on the syringe.

      Let me know how it goes!