Author Sue Weaver rediscovers her love of clicker training — a system for teaching almost any animal, from your backyard cow to the family dog, that’s rewarding for both trainer and trainee.
I love clicker training. As I’ve recently begun training a new group of goats and sheep, I thought it would be fun to show you how it’s done.
Briefly, clicker training is a gentle, reward-based system. The trainer uses a hand-held clicker to tell her pupil that he’s done well. The clicker signal is quickly followed by a small but tasty treat. Training equipment is minimal and anyone with a basic understanding of how the system works can train any kind of animal to do just about anything. If you doubt it, take a look at Billy, a Soay lamb whose trainer uses milk as a reward.
Then, after the jump, watch Billy and his Border Collie friend performing together. It’s almost magic!
The goat I’m training in these pictures is Tak, a five-month-old ⅜ Lamancha and ⅝ Nubian wether. In his first training session ever, pictured here, he understood targeting within minutes and followed the target on a loose lead in less than five.
Ready to give it a try? All you need is a pupil (goat, sheep, horse, donkey, dog, rabbit, chicken, whatever), a clicker purchased at pet store or online, a target, tiny bits of your pupil’s favorite food for reward — my sheep and goats like animal crackers broken into thirds — and something easily accessible to contain it, such as a carpenter’s apron or a small fanny pack. Targets can be anything large enough to capture your pupil’s attention. I like a marine float on a piece of dowel rod for basic training but a large squeaky toy or even an empty plastic soda bottle will do. Later I teach my pupils to target on my hand.
Take your pupil to a quiet place away from obvious distractions. Click your clicker and hand him a tiny nugget of food. Repeat this for a minute or two until he associates a click with a yummy reward.
Next, hold the target where your pupil will accidentally bump it with his nose. The moment he does, click and reward. Don’t demand perfection at first. If his nose touches anyplace on the target, reward him. I’ve trained animals who understood in two or three clicks and others that need several sessions to get it right. Sessions should be short and sweet, five minutes tops.
Once he understands, refine the process. Hold the target up so he has to raise his head to touch it, then down near the ground so he has to lower his head. Once he follows the target, walk with him, rewarding him for following and touching it with his nose.
This is the basis of clicker training. Want him to lead quietly on a loose leash or lead? Hold the target out in front and let him follow it, occasionally slowing so he can touch it and earn a reward. How about stand with his front feet on a pedestal? Hold the target over the pedestal and reward him when he complies. I train my goats to do tricks, pack our camping gear, and pull a cart using clicker training. You can use it to teach a doe to hop up on the milking stand when you point at it or to pick up her feet. If you can think of something and break it into tiny steps that you can click and reward, you can teach it to your animal through clicker training.
Some people who aren’t in the know object to clicker training because they think clicker-trained animals only work for food. Not so. Once a pupil understands the process, click and reward sporadically so that your pupil works hard, wondering which action will earn the reward. It works!
I talk a lot about clicker training and how to use it to elicit specific behaviors in the Backyard series I wrote for Storey (The Backyard Goat, The Backyard Cow, and The Backyard Sheep). You can also find a world of useful information online. However you do it, check it out and try integrating clicker training into your interactions with your animal friends. My sheep and goats and I adore clicker training. Chances are, you will too.