Many animal shelters are beginning to incorporate clicker training into their daily management. Others have seen enough to want the benefits, but just don’t know how to get started.
Ideally, someone would come and show you this new way of handling and communicating with animals, even with frightened, excitable, inexperienced animals. But that’s not always possible; there may be no clicker teachers in your area, or none sufficiently experienced to give your staff and volunteers the crash course they need.
Happily, many individuals and many shelters are able to be successful on their own. To accomplish the first steps in clicker training, you don’t need a training background or a lot of experience; all you need is curiosity, solid instruction from a good book or video, a clicker, treats, and some dogs to practice with.
And the very first steps in clicker training are exactly the steps that shelters need most: not full-blown obedience training, just some simple techniques to reduce barking, improve calmness and confidence in dogs and cats, and make animals friendlier and more oriented to people.
Here are 10 steps that will help you be successful even without a clicker teacher:
- Organize for success. First, acquire the solid self-teaching books, videos and other material that have been successful for others, and make them available to staff and volunteers alike. People should be able to find them easily during breaks. Second, make sure that an ample supply of clickers is available; we recommend two to three clickers for every person working at one time (they get misplaced!). Third, choose someone as your “Clicker Champion” (they need not be a clicker trainer yet, just an enthusiast.) and put that person in charge of clicker instructional materials and supplies.
- Give staff and volunteers permission to experiment with the clicker. Don’t expect everyone to participate; encourage those who are interested, without putting pressure on people who are hesitant. Often, clicker successes begin with volunteers, and then spread to the staff. Encourage them to read and watch the videos in the Shelter Orientation Pack, to utilize our website, and to join some of the many e-mail clicker lists.
- Begin with dogs in the kennels. Put kibble in containers near the kennel doors. Give selected staff and volunteers retractable clickers to wear on one’s waist, or hang clickers at the kennel entrances (See our Shelter Orientation Kit). Allow people to begin clicking and tossing a treat to dogs that are not barking, and to dogs that are standing rather than jumping up. Dogs quickly find out that they can make people click by standing or sitting quietly at the door. The more different people who click and treat the dogs for being quiet, the faster they learn. Just as important, clicking and treating through the kennel doors gives people practice in using the clicker without having to manage the dog at the same time. (Download our information sheet : Make your Kennel a No-Bark Zone.)
- Use feeding times as a clicker opportunity. Feeders can click when a dog is quiet and standing still, even if only momentarily, and then put the food in. Two or three repetitions may be all it takes to teach the dog to stand or sit quietly, on purpose, for its dinner. Some dogs can actually learn this by watching other dogs get clicked for being calm. Clicking at feeding time can also have a calming effect on cats. Target training-clicking a cat for touching and following an object, such as a pencil, around the front of the cage-is also an easy way to provide some mental stimulation for cats before meals. Use a special treat food such as small bits of tuna. See the Clicker Fun Kit for Cats (included in the Shelter Orientation Pack) for more ideas.
- Make the most of other frequent interactions. Cleaning the kennel and taking dogs out for exercise are excellent clicker opportunities. Start by speaking to the dogs from outside the cage. Click for eye contact. (If there are two dogs, click when they both look at you.) Toss a treat (or several treats) toward the back of the kennel. Enter the kennel while the dog goes after the treat. Click and treat for front paws on the floor, for sits, for eye contact again, and for letting you clean, or letting you put the leash on. Toss treats rather than hand-feed, for safety and to keep the dog actively participating. Much can be accomplished here in just a few seconds, and the dog will remember well, the next time. This procedure can help both the fearful, shrinking dog and the door-rushing, unmanageable dog. (Download our Information Sheet, Entering and Exiting the Kennel Quietly.)
- Communicate and Coordinate. When several people are beginning to click several behaviors with several dogs, it’s time to put progress cards on the kennel doors. Ask the Clicker Champion to prepare cards listing each dog’s name, the starting date, and clickable kennel behaviors in the order that they usually occur (see below). Clicker users can check off behaviors as they develop, so everyone can see what this particular dog should be clicked for, today. Adopters, too, can see what each dog has already learned, which they will find both impressive and reassuring. These simple clicker tasks are usually enough to quiet the dogs and make them more manageable, greatly reducing daily stress levels for people and animals both.
- Eye contact
- Stop barking
- Feet on the floor
- Come forward to greet people (shy dogs) or step back from door to greet people (overfriendly dogs)
- Sit to be fed
- Sit to be leashed
- Go out quietly
- Progress to more complex behaviors. In clicking and treating for the basic behaviors, the human participants learn how to get results with their clickers. They will now be eager to try clicking for more complex behaviors, both in the kennels and outside. The Shelter Orientation Pack materials offer a lot of help. A complete novice might begin by reading and following instructions in Karen Pryor’s book, Getting Started: Clicker Training for Dogs. Someone who has some successes under their belt could continue with exercises in Peggy Tillman’s Clicking with Your Dog, Step-by-Step in Pictures (both are included in the Shelter Orientation Pack). Good behaviors to work on include a relaxed down; loose-leash walking; sitting at doorways; give a high five (appealing to adopters); and, for safety, bump an outstretched hand with nose or head, and tolerate handling of feet, ears, mouth, and body.
- Reinforce your clicker staff/volunteers. Hold brief regularly scheduled (weekly, if possible) meetings for all staff and volunteers who are interested in clicking. Let the participants (not the supervisors) review what has been accomplished so far, discuss problems, discuss ideas, and plan the next steps. Reinforce any progress, individual or collective, with recognition. Serve snacks.
- Encourage clicker participants to attend any local clicker classes and clicker or behavior-related seminars in the area. Sending two or more volunteers or staffers to a clicker seminar or other clicker event can be a good investment. Not only will they learn while there, and from each other later on, but also they can meet other experienced clicker trainers who might be attracted to your shelter to serve as resource people.
Encourage adopters to learn clicker training and use the clicker at home. This is readily done by making sure that the Getting Started: Clicker Fun Kits are available for purchase by adopting families-or better yet folded into the price of adoption. Any dog (or cat) that has been exposed to the clicker in the shelter will be vastly reassured to hear the familiar clicker, in its new home. The dog’s obvious happy response will also please the new owners. Whether or not they continue with the training, a little clicking can go a long way to smooth the transition and make that adoption stick.