One of the easiest ways to use a clicker is to capture behavior an animal already does naturally. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of how to do it.
Charge the clicker
Get your clicker (or other marker) and a handful of food treats or a toy your pet loves. Activate your marker (“click”) and immediately give him or her the food or toy. Join your pet in playing with the toy for a short while, or wait until he or she is done eating the food. Once the reward is finished, wait a moment, click again, and deliver another reward. Repeat until your pet is showing anticipation for the reward when you click (the idea is to create a positive association with the marker).
1. Make sure your pet isn’t doing anything you dislike when you click, or you could inadvertently reward that undesired behavior.
2. Some species figure out the click faster than others. There’s no need to continue to charge the clicker once the animal understands it.
Click and treat a desired behavior to capture it
Now that the clicker is charged, you’re ready to capture a new behavior. Choose a behavior that your pet does spontaneously and somewhat regularly. Then get a clicker and treats or a toy ready and wait for him or her to do the desired behavior. Click and reward as the behavior happens. Wait for your pet to do the behavior again, and click and reward again. Repeat until your pet is regularly offering the behavior in anticipation of a click and reward.
1. Some behaviors happen more frequently and regularly than others. For behaviors that happen at a regular time of day, or in a regular context, you can “prepare yourself” with your clicker and rewards at that time or place in anticipation of the behavior happening.
2. If it’s difficult to predict when the behavior might happen, consider carrying the clicker and rewards around with you as you go about your day, so that you can click and reward whenever the opportunity arises. For behaviors like this, it may take several days before your pet starts offering the behavior regularly.
When your pet is offering a behavior regularly in anticipation of a click and reward, you can add a cue, such as a word or hand signal. Adding cues will be covered in the next article.
To read more about clicker training, see “Clicker training: technique and philosophy (part 1: technique)” and “Clicker training: technique and philosophy (part 2: philosophy).” For in-person coaching, contact me or, if you don’t live in the Los Angeles area, seek out a certified clicker trainer near you (feel free to contact me for referrals, too). If you are interested in meeting other clicker trainers and learning about clicker training in depth from a variety of experts in the field, consider attending ClickerExpo.