Introducing the Clicker to Your Small Pet
By Joan Orr
While you are conducting your feeding tests to see which treats your pet prefers, introduce the clicker. Click while the pet takes a piece of food. Click when you put the food into the cage. If you give hay or extra veggies, click when you put those in as well. This will start to build a positive association with the click sound. At this point you are not trying to click for any particular behavior, you are just trying to get the pet used to the click and feeling good when it hears the sound.
During this stage of training, try not to click when the pet is doing the same thing each time. For example if the pet jumps at the bars in anticipation of the food, and you click and then feed every time it jumps, you will have inadvertently taught your pet to jump at the bars whenever it sees you. The pet thinks that jumping at the bars causes the food to arrive, while in fact jumping has nothing to do with whether or not you are going to feed it. This is called superstitious behavior. A rabbit called PG believes that shredding papers in front of the cage door makes it open. Dogs and cats frequently have probably seen lots of superstitious behaviors: barking in belief that it will cause the door to open, scratching to have food to be dispensed and so on. Avoid creating superstitions by clicking during different types of behaviors while you are still building up the positive association with the clicker.
Once you have identified foods to use in training, give pet a small piece and click simultaneously. Do this a few times until it seems as if the pet reacts to the sound of the clicker. A rabbit may flick its ears, a ferret may do a happy dance, a guinea pig may look at the clicker and sing. Try moving the treat around or waiting for the pet to move before clicking and treating. Sometimes giving clicks and treats to a pet who is sitting still teaches the pet to remain motionless, not a helpful beginning to a training session!
If your pet is too shy to take food from your hand or come out of its cage, just offer the food on ground and click when the pet takes it. Move your hand closer and closer each time until the pet will take the food from near your hand and eventually directly from your hand. Click and treat as the pet approaches your hand. If you are trying to train the pet come out of the cage, click and treat first as it looks in the direction of the door, then if it turns its head toward the door, then if it makes any movement toward the door. Click and treat for any improvement in coming toward the door of the cage. With a shy pet it may take several sessions. A bold pet may just rush right out. Be prepared in advance in case this should happen.
Some sensitive pets are afraid of the click sound. In this case muffle the sound by wrapping a cloth around it, putting it your pocket when clicking, or work with an assistant so that the clicker can be further away from the pet. Use top level treats at first and gradually let the pet become used to the clicker.