I recently gave public lectures in St. Louis and Denver, as combined benefits for each city's zoo and humane society. In both cities, these organizations promote and use clicker training. Both the St. Louis and the Denver shelters are huge, modern establishments, with full-service veterinary hospitals built in. The shelters rescue and re-home thousands of animals a year. The zoos in both cities are also huge, handsome, historic, and yet modern, organizations, with beautiful gardens, great keepers, and great animals. (I especially admired the St. Louis collection of wild pigs, some species of which are pretty as well as smart.)
Clicking in shelters
Operant training with a marker is invaluable in shelters. The spectacle of kennel after kennel with no dogs barking was a wonderful sight to me; I well remember how it used to be. Some canine behavioral problems—food guarding, for instance—can often be cured with the right training protocol, enabling more dogs to find new homes. (Boulder's food-guarding protocol has an amazing 85% success rate.) Volunteers target train the cats in their cages. It makes them people-focused, and then they get adopted. I love the Humane Society of Boulder Valley's stated goal: "To make positive reinforcement the social norm."
Clicking in zoos
Zoo keepers are now using clicker training, called operant training or PRT for Positive Reinforcement Training, to teach husbandry behaviors: stand still, against the front of your enclosure, and let me take your temperature, listen to your heart, give you vaccinations, inspect your teeth, and draw blood. Giraffes and okapis get foot trims. Marmosets and other tiny animals weigh themselves voluntarily, by jumping onto the scales. In St. Louis, the elephants work for hand signals, clicks, and tossed bananas; no more shouting, "dominance" (i.e. bullying), and painful elephant hooks. Even the breeding bull elephant is calm; he has been clicker trained from birth. In Denver, the rhinos cooperate fully in their own care and do audience-pleasing behaviors, too.
The marker's gift: reducing fear
The gerenuk (Litocranius walleri) is an odd little antelope that stands on its hind legs to feed from trees. Gerenuks are hard to keep in captivity because they tend to panic, run into the walls, and injure or kill themselves. Reminds me of spinner dolphins: fragile, silly, nervous—and extremely beautiful.
Denver zookeeper Christina Seely has target trained their gerenuk to stand in its normal feeding position—on its hind legs against a tree—and accept physical contact and medical care. Tools: target stick, whistle, and grapes. In the process, the animal has become calm. I fed it a grape myself. Run out of grapes and the animal says "See ya," and leaves, but it no longer lives in fear.
New friends, new colleagues
In addition to the public talks, I gave workshops to the trainers at both the shelters and the zoos. The zoos and shelters covered my expenses, and I'm happy to say my talks sold out in both cities, so the host organizations benefited. Left Bank Books in St. Louis and the Tattered Cover in Denver brought many cases of Reaching the Animal Mind, and they sold out, too, so my publishers are happy!
My profound thanks go to my new friends, Linda Campbell and KPA Certified Training Partner (CTP) Lorraine Martinez, of the St. Louis Humane Society, and CTP Lucy Bailey, of the St. Louis Zoo; Connie Howard and Lindsay Wood, of the Boulder Humane Society, and Emily Insalaco, Curator of Behavioral Husbandry at the Denver Zoo, for inviting me and for making my visit such a wonderful experience.
Making positive reinforcement the social norm
And here's what I like best: the outreach. In St. Louis and in Denver anyone who wants to learn clicker training can get a good start in the 25 or more weekly pet classes at the humane society. Lindsay Wood of the Boulder Humane Society travels to other shelters to teach their protocol for eliminating food guarding. Emily Insalaco at the Denver Zoo is an instructor in the annual national Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) course on training for zoo keepers.
Here's a benefit I hoped for but wasn't sure would happen: the zoo and shelter trainers met each other. They were both amazed at what the other group of trainers could accomplish:
"What! You can stop food guarding? How on earth do you do that?"
"What! Blood draws from a tiger? I wouldn't know where to begin. " (At the base of the tail, actually.)
So now they are helping each other. They're all working toward a common goal: making positive reinforcement the social norm. Hey, me too, guys.