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Clicker Training Tips for Vet Techs

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Clicking with the animals in your care

Clicker training! It's the latest thing in the dog world. Agility competitors love it, puppy class instructors swear by it, pet owners buy books about it…but what does it have to do with medicine? Why would anyone need a clicker in a clinic? Veterinary care is all about healing pets, not training them!

Actually, this modest little gadget can be valuable, not as a training tool but as an accurate way of communicating. The click doesn't sound like anything else. It's not your voice, it's not a word or a command, it's just a click. It communicates two facts to the animal: "A treat is coming" and "Something you did made a click happen." That may seem confusing to us, but animals understand it right away.

"Constant barking is stressful for owners, patients, and staff. A small shift in routine management can reduce the noise level to zero."

Let me give you an example. You want a wriggling dog to stand still. Maybe you need to take a temp or look in an ear or just put a leash on, and the dog is making it impossible. Annoying, isn't it! But there's a clicker way to fix it.

Click when the wiggles stop for a second. Then give a small treat (a pea-sized bit of string cheese, for example). Repeat three or four more times in rapid succession, clicking whenever the dog is momentarily not wiggling. That's often all it takes to make the dog stand still on purpose. The dog doesn't know you want it to stand still. It may have no idea why you need it to stand still. But it has discovered how to make you click. That is very useful information to the dog. It will try to make you click again…by standing still some more.

You can click noisy dogs for being quiet, shy dogs for coming forward, bouncy dogs for sitting. You can click cats. You can use the clicker to help get medicine down, or to clip nails, or get animals into and out of cages and crates.

Make your clinic a no-bark zone

Constant barking is stressful for owners, patients, and staff. A small shift in routine management can reduce the noise level to zero.

Hang a small envelope of kibble or treats on the outside of enclosures. For pets with dietary restrictions use their normal food. Anyone who is frequently in the noisy area can use the following clicker procedures:

  • If a dog is barking, approach the dog, wait until the barking stops even for a split second, click, treat, and move on. Or…
  • If a dog is barking persistently, don't look at it; instead, click and treat its quiet neighbors on either side or across the aisle, and move on.
  • If a barking dog stops when he sees you coming, click and toss a treat. Wait a few beats, watching the dog. Click and treat, again.
  • Mark kennels of persistent barkers with a colored tag or ribbon; ask staff to click and treat any periods of quiet from those dogs.
  • Click persistent barkers for any of the following behaviors: looking away, lying down, backing away from the gate.
  • Be patient. Habitual barkers may get worse, temporarily, before they give in and offer silence as the new way to get attention.
  • In traditionally noisy moments, such as mealtime, click quiet dogs before feeding. Feed barkers last, and only after a click.
  • Ask staff to click occasionally for quiet on an irregular basis; unpredictable clicks and treats will maintain behavior strongly.

Clicking in the examination room

The vet technician who uses a clicker can make everyone's life easier in the examination room. When the dog or cat is nervous, not to mention the owner, examinations take longer. Sometimes a diagnosis can be missed because the pet resists so much.

Here's a way the technician can use a technique clicker trainers call "targeting" to calm and re-focus both the animal and the pet.

Keep a supply of soft, easily digested treats handy in the refrigerator. Kibble or biscuits take too long to eat and tend to make a mess; pea-sized pieces of string cheese are preferable. The aim is to give the dog a nice taste and smell without actually feeding it much.

Hold your fist up to the dog with a treat inside. When the dog sniffs your fist, click and open the hand and let the dog take the treat. Repeat. Now have the owner hold his or her closed hand to the dog. If the dog sniffs, you click and treat. Give the owner the treats, one at a time, and have the owner hold up an empty hand as the target, while you click for touches to the hand (make it very easy, the dog shouldn't have to reach or move).

When the dog is voluntarily touching its nose to the back of the owner's hand, the vet can begin work. Now you can click the behavior of "touch your target no matter what," as the vet makes the examination. That is, you are clicking for touching the target, but you are also clicking for calmness and for tolerating the exam. The owner meanwhile is busy holding out a hand as the target, and giving treats when you click.

Practice this first with dogs that are already calm. Why shouldn't they get a nice experience at the vet's, too? Then take your skills to nervous and uneasy dogs. The dogs will thank you, the owners will develop confidence, and the examinations will not only go better and faster but will be safer, as well.

Send pets home with clicker kits! Clicker Training Fun Kits for Dogs and Cats have everything owners (and their pets) need to get clicking. Veterinary hospitals and clinics get 40% discounts for quantities of 12 or more; call 1-800-47 CLICK or write.

About the author
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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

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