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Clicking in the Shelter Environment

I've become very interested in clicker training dogs and cats in shelters. I've visited shelters around the United States and the UK and seen clicker programs in use. I often use shelter dogs for clicker demos at scientific and professional meetings. I've also gone into shelters, usually at the request of some TV team, and just started clicking and treating one dog or cat after another, in their cages—an interesting and often amazing experience.

Here in Boston our company has been exploring various ways to teach clicker basics in shelters. Our efforts have included all-day 200-person seminars at Tufts, giving on-site clicker workshops for shelter staff and volunteers, and making a shelter orientation pack of teaching materials available at a discount (our 'lunchtime library') so that shelters can learn clicker training on their own. Several local shelters now sell our Clicker Kits to adopters or make a clicker kit part of every dog or cat's adoption package.

In shelters, just a tiny bit of clicker work can make a huge difference. Many abandoned animals have come from such deprived environments that they just don't connect with people at all. Then you introduce the clicker and, as one researcher put it to me recently, "It's as if you threw a switch in their heads." Often the very first session is enough to turn an animal (dog OR cat) from a blank-eyed, nervous creature that ignores people into a friendly, interested, focused animal that is ready to learn more.

Clicking pays off for the staff and volunteers, too. It's fun, it's rewarding, it makes the job more satisfying—and it can solve real problems. For example in some shelters the dogs bark, bark, bark all day. It's exhausting for animals and people alike, and it can be unbearable for visitors; they can't stand being in the kennels at all, much less spending time there trying to choose a dog. However if just one or two kennel workers, on a sporadic and occasional basis, begin clicking and treating dogs that are not barking—presto. The dogs watch each other getting clicked. All the dogs catch on. Peace and quiet. It's so simple and effective that we have put "Make your shelter a No-Bark zone" on our website so shelters can download the instructions free. (As of yesterday 134 organizations had done so.)

For additional assistance with implementing a clicker training program at your shelter, contact a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner.

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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