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Point and Click - Training Any Animal-yes, any-with just a click!
Animal trainer Karen Pryor sure could have used the clicker training method she now promotes when she was living in the Village some years ago. "My cat got out. I don't know how, but she just got out," recalls Ms. Pryor. Luckily, the wayward kitty was found on the fourth floor of the 10-story building she lived in.
But that wasn't the cat-alyst that put Ms. Pryor, an English major in college, on the road to training cats and dogs. She was working at Sea Life Park in Hawaii when the training bug really bit her. While there, she noticed something interesting. "The dolphins had trained their trainers to give them fish for nothing," she said. That's when something clicked, so to speak. Ms. Pryor, who had trained horses, recalled a method proposed some years back but not widely used. Ms. Pryor followed her instincts and soon the dolphins were learning in record time. From there, it was a short leap to more common companion animals. "With the dolphins is was a whistle; with other animals, it's the clicker."
A Tiger By The Tail
The clicker method is much like the treat-for-trick method, only the treat reward is paired with a click. The clicker device is a small, square, plastic contraption with a metal piece inside that, when pressed, clicks. The whole thing fits on a key chain.
What makes this training method truly unique is that Ms. Pryor and many other clicker converts insist that any animal can be trained with it. Perhaps the ultimate test of this was when Ms. Pryor was summoned by the Bronx Zoo to help handlers train the tigers at the Zoo's new Tiger Mountain exhibit. "When you need to do a medical test or procedure on a tiger, you either have to shoot them with a tranquilizing dart or put them in a squeeze device in their cage to hold them still," she says. The click method makes this a much more pleasant experience for both tiger and handler. "Now, the keepers can clicker-train the tiger to, say, put their nose on a target until they're told to move. While their nose is on the target, the trainer can draw blood from the tiger's tail or whatever else they need to do."
Training-Not Just for Dogs and Cats Anymore
Tigers aren't the only exotic animals that are clicker-trainable. Birds, small mammals and other creatures are all clicker trainable; in fact, a new clicker "Bird Kit" is due out this fall. "Small animals are especially a joy to clicker-train," she says, and they learn very quickly. But near-perfect timing is a big part of this method. As soon as the animal you're training does the trick or behavior you want it to do, the clicker should click and the treat should be bestowed. "What you click is what you get," Ms. Pryor says. But don't let that get you worried. Relax, take it easy, and have fun. "Don't panic," she says. "Just try it." And who knows? A click might do the trick.
Cats: Many cat problems, Ms. Pryor says, stem from boredom. "That's why if you jump up and say no when your cat starts scratching the couch or nips at you they won't stop doing it. After all, they've got your attention." Try giving them something else to do, maybe even setting up a kitty obstacle course in your living room for them to do while you're out.
But even with clicker training, cats will be cats. "They're good for about four or five clicks per training session," Ms. Pryor says. "Otherwise, they'll leave before they'll learn."
Follow the Target: A Basic Clicker Game for Cats and People
1. Make sure your cat is a little hungry. If you usually leave food down, take it away for two to three hours before the game starts. Choose a highly preferred food. When you give a treat, put a little dab on a plate or hold out a dab on a spoon.
2. Pick a target stick: a pencil (eraser end), wooden spoon, or chopstick. Click the clicker and put a treat on the plate. Let the cat eat. Now hold out the target near the cat's nose. When the cat sniffs the target, click, take the target away, and treat.
3. Repeat two or three times, holding the target an inch or two from the cat, but a little to the left or right. Click and treat each touch or sniff and remove the target. Click during the move toward the target, not afterward. Present the target again as soon as the cat finished eating and lifts its head.
4. Hold the target a little further away, so the cat has to reach or take a step toward it. Click/treat.
5. move the target so the cat has to take two or three steps toward it. WHen the cat is moving confidently after, see if you can get the cat to move two or three feet, or in a circle.
See if the cat will jump up onto a chair, or down onto the floor, to touch the target. Yes? Click and give a specially large treat.
Try targeting your cat from chair to chair, or up to a high place; challenge the cat's jumping skills! Target your cat to the scratching post and click and treat for touching the post.
Dogs: Unlike cats, you may tire out before the dog wants to stop your clicker-training session. "Unlike cats, which do best with short sessions, dogs will go on and on."
Reptiles: Reptiles and other animals that don't eat that often aren't going to be motivated to do tricks for a food reward, Ms. Pryor says. "You have to choose something they like; maybe a hot rock, or petting.
For more information on clicker training, visit Karen's website at www.clickertraining.com.
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