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10 tips to improve your clicker training

Clicker training is GREAT for dogs, cats, and horses. (And even lobsters and goldfish!) With clicker training, animals learn fast and are generally more interested and engaged in the training process. However, like anything else, clicker training is a skill.

Being skilled at clicker training takes time and practice. Here are 10 tips that will help your clicker training skills go from good to great:

1. Play the Shaping Game
Find a clicker and at least one other person. Take turns training each other to perform simple behaviors such as turning on a light switch or opening the fridge. Take turns being the trainer and trainee. You’ll improve your shaping skills and learn how an animal feels during training!

2. Videotape Yourself
Set up a video camera and record your training sessions. You’ll be able to better track your progress and analyze spots where you are getting stuck. If possible, get another trainer or friend to watch your videos. They’ll see things that you missed.

3. Have a Well Defined Plan
It’s easy to get in trouble or get stuck if you haven’t mapped out where you’re going. Decide what you will and won’t click for. Plan each step towards your goal. Think about potential problem spots and know before you start what to do in each of these situations.

4. Train Another Species
Think you’re a great dog trainer? Try training a goldfish, cat, hamster or horse. Training other species will expose some of your weaknesses and ultimately improve your training skills. Bob Bailey trains animal trainers using chickens and Karen Pryor makes trainers in her dog trainer academy train at least one other species in order to graduate.

5. Improve your Mechanical Skills
Much of clicker training is mechanical skills, such as food delivery and clicker timing. You can work on improving your timing and accuracy without your animal. For example, watch the news and try to click whenever anyone says the word “today.” (More exercises and tips here.)

6. Learn from Top Clicker Trainers
Identify several trainers who you think are at the top of the field. Watch videos, attend seminars and workshops and read books. Go to conferences such as ClickerExpo. Figure out what top clicker trainers are doing, what works and why it works. I really enjoy watching Kay Laurence, who has lots of free videos on her youtube channel, ladstwo.

7. Reevaluate and Expand Your Reinforcers
Sometimes trainers get into a rut of always using the same reinforcers. Expanding the types of reinforcers you use can add variety to your training sessions. Also, evaluating your reinforcers using the principles of DISC can help you make your reinforcers more effective.

8. Find a Clicker Training Buddy.
Find someone you can bounce ideas off of. Someone who will help you discuss goals, celebrate successes and brainstorm about any difficulties you encounter. You’ll learn too from their ideas, progress and stories about their own animals. This could be someone you train with in person or even someone you keep in contact with online or by phone.

9. Train in Short Sessions or Take Breaks
Train in shorter sessions or add breaks to longer sessions. You can limit your sessions based on time (such as 5 minutes) or number of treats (such as 20 treats). Breaks give you time to evaluate how the training is progressing and decide whether to continue or change what you are doing. Shorter sessions are easier to intersperse throughout a busy day.

10. Teach Someone Else about Clicker Training
Can you explain the hows and whys of clicker training to someone who is unfamiliar with the concept? Can you help someone get started and help them troubleshoot through any difficulties? You’ll have a solid understanding of what you are doing if you can explain it to others. If you’re still learning yourself, see if you can find a trainer who will let you help out or assist with beginner classes.

Now it’s your turn!!
What are some of your favorite tips for becoming a better clicker trainer? Leave your comments below, and I’ll publish the best ones during the first week of November.

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  • Painting Pony

    love the list!
    I hate to admit it, but I'm guilty of not doing a lot of these things. Having a full time job – that I run alone, house, multiple online businesses, a farm to take care of, ponies to ride & train – sometimes there is barely enough time to eat in there.
    So as much as I would LOVE to map out a plan, watch videos, etc. I often find myself just pulling out a clicker and hoping to capture something I love.
    I know it's not the best method….and sometimes I wish I had a plan…..but sometimes I like that spontaneity of it. Like when I was training my pony to bow….and he decided to roll instead….I thought ..thats way cooler, lets go with that trick instead. Now he's got a pretty cool laydown AND a bow.
    so i guess if I had anything to add to your list it would be have fun, and be willing to change the plan! :) haha.
    And I have a stack of videos/book to watch and read if I can EVER get to it….i think that stack is going on a year now. sooo embarrassing! haha

    • http://stalecheerios.com/blog Mary Hunter

      I totally understand!! I don't always do all of these either.

      I really like your point about just going with it. I was once trying to teach Ginger dog something (don't remember what now?) and she offered something pretty close to a bow. So I clicked for it a few times! and ended up with a pretty good bow on cue after a couple of sessions.

      It can be easy sometimes to get overwhelmed with trying to be a “good trainer” and stop having fun. Training should be fun for the animal and the human!

      cheers,

      Mary

  • keechypeach

    Thanks for the link to Kay Laurence. I have wached a couple of her vids and will enjoy watching the rest. I guess my hint would be don't be afraid to switch training techniques if one thing is not working, eg free-shaping to luring or vice versa, or start with the last action you want and backchain instead of teaching the first one and going forward. Make it a game for yourself to find the best way to teach that skill to that particular animal. There are as many ways to teach a skill as there are beings to teach it to. As long as you keep seeing it as a game, you don't get bogged down or lose hope or patience.

    • http://stalecheerios.com/blog Mary Hunter

      Great point.
      I really like how you phrased this sentence “Make it a game for yourself to find the best way to teach that skill to that particular animal. “
      Sometimes training can be frustrating. It's a good point to remember to do something different!, if what you're doing just isn't working.

      I ran into this recently when I was training Ginger to weave through my legs. It was slow going at first. Once I figured out how to set the training up so she could be successful, we progressed a lot more rapidly.

      Kay Laurence is excellent. I hope you enjoy watching the videos!

      Mary

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  • Bill

    I have found that holding a clicker while I drive, and clicking when a traffic light turns green; and clicking the turn signal light of the car ahead of me helps the muscle memory alive.

  • Jeanne Macomber

    How loud should a clicker be…..for a dog? …for a horse? I bought a clicker on line that is so loud I didn't want to use it with my horse, then I bought a clicker at a pet store that is so soft I wonder if it's a good tool to reliably mark a behavior. Do you have a rule of thumb? It seems to me that if a clicker is so loud that it hurts the human ear, it's too loud to use for training a land animal….but…..?
    Jeanne Macomber

    • http://stalecheerios.com/blog Mary Hunter

      Hi Jeanne,

      Sorry I didn't reply to your comment earlier!!
      I think it truly depends on the individual animal, your personal preference and the amount of distractions and other noises in the environment. 

      Some animals very much prefer a softer clicker, but many don't seem to care, especially after they figure out that the clicker is a predictor for food and other good things. The plastic box style clickers are generally very loud, but most animals are fine with them. 

      I usually use a tongue click–I make a click sound on the roof of my mouth. This is especially helpful with the horses, as then I don't have to worry about holding a clicker. 

      Mary

  • Cynthia

    One of the problems I have been having with the clicker training is being able to tell if the animal is responding to the clicker whether it be my dog,cat or rat. There are times when they look like they get it and other times it seems like there just responding to my hand moving toward them with the treat. I think it might be because I am not coordinated with the clicker. Is there anything I need to know with being coordinated clicker.

    • http://stalecheerios.com/blog Mary Hunter

      Hi Cynthia,

      Thanks for the comment on my blog.

      The animal will respond to whatever is the best predictor of food. So, in order for the click to work well, we have to be consistent about our timing and mechanics of food delivery. Try practicing some of the exercises in the link for #5, which talks about mechanical skills. ( http://stalecheerios.com/blog/
      It's hard for me to give specific advice without being able to see what you are doing. If you can have someone watch you train, this can be a great way to get some tips and pointers of how to improve your training. Joining one of the online training lists, such as clicker solutions ( http://stalecheerios.com/blog/… is also a great way to get specific tips and advice.

      Good luck! Let me know if you have any more specific questions.

      ~Mary

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  • http://www.hippiegeekfarmart.com/index.html Akyramoto

    what a great list!! thanks, I really need to do #1!! I wonder what my friends will work for!!
    seems like #8 is really hard to find, for me anyways!! Thanks for the tips I put the URL on my website so others can check this page out too!!

    • http://stalecheerios.com/blog Mary Hunter

      Thanks for commenting and a big thanks as well for putting the link on your site. I'm glad you enjoyed the article. :)

      With regards to 8, I know finding in person clicker friends can be a challenge, especially depending on where you live. I think online friends can count too!

      cheers,

      Mary

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