Weaning Off the Clicker and Treats

By Joan Orr

One of the most common questions people have about clicker training is, “will I have to click and treat forever.” The answer is no. The clicker is a communication tool and is used to teach new behaviors. When behaviors are well-established and the pet performs reliably when you give the cue, you can begin to wean off the clicker. Click and treat intermittently and then only occasionally to keep the behavior strong. Remember, that a click means a treat every time – so even when you are trying to wean off the clicker, continue to give a treat for every click. Don’t be in a rush to stop using the clicker, however. The more often a behavior has been reinforced, the stronger it will become.

Another common question is if a pet will perform a behavior only when it knows you have treats. To prevent this, keep the treats in your pocket or otherwise out of sight while training. Avoid luring the pet or bribing it by holding up a treat every time you ask it to do something. When you are first teaching something new it can be helpful to show the pet the treat and use this to help the pet find the correct position. Sitting up in hind legs for example is amenable to this luring method. Hold the treat over the pet's nose and click/treat when it sits up. After 5-10 repetitions, just pretend to have the treat so that the pet learns the hand signal. Once the pet seems to have the idea you can stop using the food lure and just use the hand signal, or wait for the pet to offer the behavior without any prompting and then click/treat when it does.

If the pet forgets its tricks or does not respond to your cues, go back to training again with the clicker and treats until the former level of performance is reestablished. Clicker trainers call this “going back to kindergarten.” You will find that the behavior returns quickly, and often stronger. Another way to keep behavior strong without the clicker is to substitute a new reinforcer once the behavior has been taught and is reliable. Substitute rewards can be play, petting or praise if your pet likes these things. If your pet yawns, licks its chops or turns away from you when you pet it or give it another substitute, then it is not enjoying this attention and you cannot use this as a reinforcer.