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Clicker Training 101

Time to get training underway? Learn to do it with a click.
By Sonya Collins
WebMD Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by William Draper, DVM

"No cats on the counter!"Sound familiar? We all order our pets to stop this or stay off that. Pets do need to learn household rules, just like any other family member, but it doesn't have to be all about "No!"

"The conventional view is that the purpose of any training is to stop the animal from doing things. But modern training is built on reinforcing what you want and replacing the behavior you don't like with something you do like," says Karen Pryor, author of Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us About All Animals. She is a pioneer of the clicker-training method, based on the work of psychologist and behaviorist B.F. Skinner. The method has been used to train hundreds of species, even guinea pigs and pet rabbits. You use a sound, such as a click, to show your pet when it has done what you wanted and to alert it that a reward, such as a bit of food, is on the way.

"The click penetrates into the nervous system in a way that natural cues in the wild would," Pryor says. "You're ringing the bell in the brain, dopamine cascades, they get a sense of thrill, and -- bingo -- now they get the food."

Saying "good!" isn't the same as a click. "It's a sound that's set aside only for this instance. People think they can say ‘yes' and ‘good,' but you [also] say, ‘yes' and ‘good' on the telephone all the time. [These words have] no benefit for your pet," Pryor says.

Here's how to get started: Buy a clicker, a small hand-held noisemaker available at pet supply stores. A bell or whistle will work, too.

Next, teach your pet that the sound brings a treat by clicking, then immediately give your pet a small piece of food. After a few rounds, only click when she does what you ask. Start with something she may already know how to do, such as coming when you call her.

Once your pet has learned that cue, reserve the click for other behaviors you're trying to teach. For example, when your dog is on the couch, say "down." When he gets down, click and treat. "This is universal."

Q&A With Karen Pryor

Q: "My dog goes freely in and out the doggy door and sometimes he climbs the fence. How can I get him to stop?” -- Shannon Caldwell 44, career coach, Athens, Ga.

A: "Getting your dog to change his behavior when you're not there to correct it is not a training problem. It's a management problem. You can train the dog to come when you call his name. But if you're not home, you can't expect the dog to change his ways when he wants to go out exploring. He's going to find ways to amuse himself when you're not there, and climbing the fence is one of them. Keep the dog inside when you're gone -- or build a higher fence.” -- Karen Pryor

Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of "WebMD Magazine." 

Reviewed on July 10, 2013

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