Do you think that clicker training is just for dogs? Think again! Ferrets have been bred to have a high level of curiosity and well developed problem solving abilities. These traits combined with their innate intelligence make them well suited to clicker training.
But what is clicker training?
Clicker training revolves around the idea of positive reinforcement. When your ferret performs the desired action (uses the litter box, runs through a tube, comes when called, etc), you click and give it a reward. Incorrect behavior is ignored completely, only correct behavior is acknowledged and rewarded. The click indicates the good behavior, which allows the ferret to correctly identify what you want it to do (it could do several things between performing the action and hearing your praise/getting a treat that could confuse it as to what the good behavior was). This helps the ferret to learn faster and improves the chances for successful training.
What steps should I take to clicker train my ferret?
You will need to figure out ahead of time what reward(s) you’re going to use. Rewards can be a treat, praise, attention, toys, a favorite game – anything that your ferret really enjoys will work. You can use multiple kinds of rewards in one training session, and it’s a good idea to save the ferret’s very favorite reward for when it does especially well.
The first step in clicker training is getting the ferret to understand what the click is for. (Since for most ferrets the best reward is a treat, that is the reward that we will refer to.) Sit in front of your ferret, hand it a treat and click. If the ferret is too nippy, place the treat on the floor and click as it picks the treat up. Do this 4 or 5 times until the ferret makes the association between the click and the treat.
Next you want the ferret to associate repeat behaviors with the noise and the treat. Wait for the ferret to make a movement, then click and reward. Click as soon as the movement begins, and give the treat immediately after. Your ferret will very quickly realize that if it does something repeatedly, it will hear a click and get a treat.
Once your ferret has gotten the hang of the repeat behavior and will do it reliably, you can add cues, either verbal cues or hand gestures. To initiate this next step in the training, wait until the ferret does the action, then click and reward. The ferret will do it again to see if it gets the same reaction from you. After the ferret does this a few times, tell the ferret what to do as it’s doing it, click and reward. Then tell the ferret to do the action before the ferret does it. Eventually the ferret will realize that when you say or signal a certain cue, you are telling it to do a certain action. If your ferret starts to do the action all the time with the hope of getting a reward, only click and reward when your ferret does it on your command. This will teach your ferret that you will ignore begging behavior and reward only when you command the action.
Once the behaviors that you are training for have been firmly established, you can fade out the click and reward and use it only occasionally. Make sure to wait until your ferret is ready for this. If you fade out the click and reward too soon, the ferret may forget part or all of the training. The longer you click and reward, the more reinforced the training will be. If the ferret does seem to forget, simply start from the beginning again. Your ferret will quickly remember its training.
It doesn’t seem to be working – what am I doing wrong?
Make sure that the training is done in a relatively empty space at first. If there are lots of other things in the room for the ferret to explore, the training won’t be very successful. You want yourself, the clicker and the reward to be the most interesting things in the room.
Remember that while your ferret is very intelligent, there are still going to be times when it fails to meet the goals you’ve set for it. If it doesn’t receive a click more than three times in a row, change the goal you’re working toward to prevent frustration and allow your ferret to succeed. The training should be challenging for your ferret, but not impossible or frustrating.
Never react to negative behavior, not even to say “No”. Only the desired behaviors should be rewarded. Make sure to avoid doing anything that the ferret might find upsetting or frightening during training, or it will counteract all of the work you are doing. This includes scolding, yelling or any kind of physical punishment. The point of clicker training is to positively reinforce good behaviors, not to punish bad or undesired ones.
Adjust your training to fit your ferret’s personality and intelligence. Some ferrets will fly through training, and other may have a harder time understanding and repeating the desired behaviors. Because of this, you will want to come up with a few different training ideas. Make sure to always have the next few steps of your training program planned out in case your ferret surprises you! On the flip side of this, have an alternate, less aggressive training program on hand in case your ferret progresses slowly
Sessions should be short at first, and if your ferret seems to be getting bored or distracted, switch to click training for another action. The point isn’t just to train your ferret, but also to improve your relationship with it. Clicker training is a form of enrichment for your ferret and a great way for you two to interact, so be patient and enjoy it!