Friday, January 1, 2010

Sue Weaver: Just Click It!

My New Year’s resolutions are simple enough: write two new books this year and finish clicker training projects started in 2009. The biggest are teaching my water buffalo, Ludo, to ride and training Mopple and several of my goats to drive and do tricks.

Martok examines the target . . .

. . . and touches it with his nose.

While most folks associate clicker training, also known as operant conditioning, with sea mammals, horses, and dogs, it’s the easiest and most rewarding way to train birds and animals of all sorts and sizes. Clicker-training pioneers Marian Breland Bailey and her first and second husbands, Keller Breland and Bob Bailey, in fact trained more than 140 species at their educational facility in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Hens, the Brelands learned early on, were the ideal medium for teaching prospective trainers to use operant conditioning. They are fast, predictable, portable, and easily handled. To see how it’s done, check out the Chicken Camp videos at YouTube (start with the chicken agility video; it’s a good one) and download the Baileys’ free How to Train a Chicken guide to learn how to do it yourself.

We began clicker training in 1999 when Maggie, an abused 7/8 Arabian mare, came through our rescue. Maggie’s few experiences with being haltered as a filly resulted in terrible beatings, so when we got her, haltering was out of the question. We ran her into a stock trailer to bring her home, but what to do then? I’d read about clicking but never tried it. Fortunately, Maggie (who, due to dangerous flashback behavior, is still with us today) loved food, so I bought a clicker, made a target, and we began. In a few days we could halter Maggie without a qualm, and she happily followed the target on lead.

Since then we’ve clicker trained our dogs and equines of all sorts but also cattle, llamas, sheep, goats, and, yes, one chicken. I also write about clicker training in all my books; I believe that not only is it the best possible way to forge a bond between humans and their animal friends, but it’s fun to do, and it works!

Getting started is the essence of simplicity. All you need is a basic understanding of clicker-training principles, a clicker, food rewards and a place to stow them, and a target. And no matter which species you plan to train, I strongly recommend if you're a first-timer that you buy Peggy Tillman’s Clicking with Your Dog: Step-by-Step in Pictures (Sunshine Books; 2006) before you begin because it’s the clearest introduction to clicking principles I’ve seen. Barring that (and even if you use the book), plan to visit Clicker Solutions’ free online archives, where you can access hundreds of articles about training scores of species. No matter what you want to know, it’s there!

Tools for clicker training

Karen Pryor introduced clicker training to the companion animal community in the 1980s, when she wrote Don’t Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training (third edition; Ringpress Books, 2002). Her books and Web site remain a treasure trove of useful information for new-to-the-art clicker trainers. Don’t miss the free videos, blogs, and articles accessible through this site. It’s a great place to order books and supplies as well.

Hundreds of YahooGroups help newcomers and experienced trainers share insights into clicker training, such as Click Ryder for horse trainers, Bird-Click for cage-bird owners, and Cat-Clicker for cat fans.

Still not convinced? Visit YouTube to watch hundreds of videos of clicker-trained dogs, cats, and horses, along with clicker-trained donkeys (there are scores of donkey clicker-training tidbits at YouTube), rabbits, parrots and cockatoos, sheep, goats, llamas and alpacas, hamsters (this is useful no matter which species you hope to train), guinea pigs, and, yes, even chickens.

And please also view Spotty’s Tricks. Though the clicker isn’t obvious in this wonderful video (my YouTube all-time favorite), Spotty clearly targets on his young mistress’s hand. If this is the sort of bond you’d love to forge with your animal friends, please try clicker training; you won’t be disappointed!

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